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On April 29, 1975, the beleaguered South Vietnamese capital of Saigon witnessed the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Two United States Marine Corps helicopter squadrons, ten U.S. Air Force helicopters, and Air America carried out 1,373 Americans and 5,595 people of other nationalities. Although a good deal has been written over the past thirty years about the military's efforts during the dramatic events of late April, the story of Air America — the airline secretly owned by the Central Intelligence Agency — remains largely untold.
By mid-April, it was clear that the progressive seizure of South Vietnam by multiple tank-led North Vietnamese Army (NVA) columns would not likely be stopped. Hanoi's campaign had begun with the January 6, 1975, fall of Phuoc Binh, the first provincial capital to be taken by the Northerners in the two years since the signing of the Paris peace arrangement. The loss, seventy-five miles north of Saigon, cost the South Vietnamese three thousand soldiers and was accomplished by two North Vietnamese divisions reinforced by armored forces, a pattern that would be repeated time and again.
The next significant blow came on March 10 in the high plateau region of the country, two hundred miles to the north of Saigon at Ban Me Thuot, the capital of Darlac province. There, two NVA divisions, again with substantial tank reinforcements, pummeled a South Vietnamese division and began heading eastward toward the coast. By April 2, the NVA had effectively cut South Vietnam in half, leaving Saigon's forces in the northern half of the country trapped between North Vietnam and the growing number of Communist units pouring in from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Cambodia. By April 25, fifteen NVA divisions had surrounded the Saigon area, which was defended by only four infantry divisions, an armored brigade, an airborne brigade, and two ranger regiments.
When military authorities were discussing plans for Frequent Wind (Option 4) — the emergency helicopter evacuation of Saigon — in early April, it was obvious that Air America would have a crucial part to play. Rooftops in downtown Saigon could not support the heavy Marine Corps helicopters. Only Air America's lighter Bell UH-1 Hueys could do the job, and the airline pledged to military evacuation authorities to have twenty-five of its twenty-eight helicopters available at any given time. Because of a shortage of pilots, many of these helicopters would have to be flown by a single pilot. According to the U.S. Air Force account of the final evacuation, 'This was risky, but Air America was accustomed to such risks and expressed no reservations about that aspect of the Saigon air evacuation.'
On April 7, veteran helicopter pilot Nikki A. Fillipi reported as Air America's representative to the Special Planning Group of the Evacuation Control Center at the Defense Attach Office (DAO) compound, located at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airport. His first responsibility was to survey thirty-seven buildings in downtown Saigon to assess their viability as helicopter landing zones (HLZs). Working with Lieutenant Robert Twigger, assigned to the DAO from Okinawa as the Marine Corps liaison officer, Fillipi completed in ten hours a task that was scheduled to take a minimum of two days. The survey led to the selection of thirteen HLZs. Fillipi then put in three eighteen-hour days supervising crews in removing obstructions that might interfere with safe ingress-egress to the HLZs. An 'H' was painted on each rooftop to mark the skids for Air America's helicopters, indicating that aircraft could land or take off in either direction with guaranteed rotor clearance.
During his meetings with the Special Planning Group, Fillipi emphasized that three requirements had to be met if Air America was to complete its assigned tasks in the evacuation plan. Earlier evacuations of Pleiku, Da Nang, and Nha Trang had demonstrated the need for the Air America ramp, or landing site, to be secured. Helicopters also needed a safe supply of fuel. Finally, to avoid confusion, Air America had to maintain its own communication network, linking with Marine Corps helicopters only through the UHF guard frequency. He was assured that all three requirements would be met.
Paul Velte, Air America's managing director and CEO, arrived in Saigon from Washington in early April. After consulting with Fillipi on the evacuation planning to date, he contacted U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard Baughn, deputy to defense attach Maj. Gen. Homer D. Smith. Velte was concerned about the possible loss of Air America's base at Tan Son Nhut in time of emergency and suggested that the U.S. Navy assign a 'baby carrier' to the company as an operational base. 'The baby carrier,' Velte explained, 'had the necessary machine shops to do repair work, had fuel, and had mobility. It could move up and down the coast and would allow Air America to perform its missions as required.' Velte also wanted to know if the military could furnish additional pilots to allow double crewing of the helicopters for the emergency operation.Baughn was sympathetic to Velte's requests. The loan of a carrier, however, was out of the question. He did request the temporary reassignment of thirty marine helicopter pilots so that each Air America Huey would have a co-pilot. But when Ambassador Graham Martin read the cable, he was furious. He sent an urgent message canceling Baughn's request, relieved the air force general of his duties, and ordered him out of the country.
Martin's precipitous action was characteristic of what was becoming an increasingly bizarre attitude on the part of the U.S. Embassy as the North Vietnamese drew closer to Saigon. Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was becoming concerned with Martin's actions. 'Faced with imminent disaster,' Kissinger later wrote, 'Martin decided to go down with the ship….' He was reluctant to evacuate any Americans lest that contribute to the disintegration of the South. 'I considered Martin's stonewalling dangerous,' Kissinger recalled. On April 9, he told Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, 'We've got an ambassador who is maybe losing his cool.'
The military's efforts to press Martin into action were proving fruitless. On April 12, the 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade (MAB), which was to supply helicopters and a security force for the evacuation, sent a delegation to consult with the ambassador on current plans. Martin told them that he would not tolerate any outward signs that the United States intended to abandon South Vietnam. All planning would have to be conducted with the utmost discretion. Brigadier General Richard E. Carey, commander of the 9th MAB, flew to Saigon the next day to see Martin. 'The visit,' Carey reported, 'was cold, non-productive and appeared to be an irritant to the ambassador.'The military situation, meanwhile, continued to worsen as North Vietnamese forces encircled the capital. On April 21, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned. That same day, the 9th MAB established a forward headquarters at the Defense Attach Office. The DAO complex, together with an Air America area across the street, was designated as the main departure point for a helicopter evacuation to the fleet. A battalion-sized security force would guard the complex, while a battalion command group and one company would be sent to the Air America area.
General Smith also sent a message to Washington, requesting permission to send a platoon of marines to Tan Son Nhut at once to control the growing crowd of fixed-wing evacuees. Lest Ambassador Martin's sensitivities be upset about the presence of additional U.S. military personnel, Air America helicopters were used on April 25 to bring in forty marines, dressed in civilian clothes, from USS Hancock, standing offshore. Once inside the DAO complex, they were able to don their combat gear.
Air America's part in the evacuation plans began to unravel on April 28. As managing director Velte later recalled, 'Many things began to happen at once.' That morning, Velte had an unpleasant encounter with George Jacobson, special assistant for field operations at the embassy and the man charged by Martin to handle evacuation matters. Citing Air America's contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Jacobson had been requiring four double-crewed helicopters to stay overnight at the Mekong River provincial capital of Can Tho, where there was a U.S. consulate. Velte complained that the requirement was jeopardizing Air America's commitment of twenty-five helicopters for the evacuation of Saigon. Jacobson, Velte later recalled, explained that 'he had an obligation to his people. They were highly dedicated types and they felt better knowing that there were helicopters available.' The managing director then told Jacobson that he intended to return the helicopters to Saigon, the USAID contract notwithstanding.
Later that day, Velte learned that General Carey had decided not to provide a security force for the Air America ramp at Tan Son Nhut. This came as a shock. Only the previous week, Carey had assured Velte that he would send marines to secure the ramp. Velte made several phone calls in an effort to have Carey's decision reversed. When that course of action appeared unpromising, he prepared a letter for Jacobson, asking that the ambassador intervene and overturn the decision. From the start, he emphasized to Jacobson that the security of the Air America area had been a prerequisite for the company's successful participation in any emergency evacuation plan. Velte then called a 5:30 p.m. meeting of senior company personnel to review the latest developments.
Velte was in Air America Vice President Var Green's office at Tan Son Nhut, his back to the window, when they heard a flight of jet planes passing overhead shortly after 6 p.m. Suddenly, bombs began to fall, shattering the glass in the window. Five Cessna A-37 Dragonfly jets were attacking the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) side of the field. They destroyed three Fairchild AC-119 gunships and several Douglas C-47 transports, and set off numerous fires. At first, everyone believed that the attack marked the start of a coup. It soon became clear, however, that the aerial assault was the beginning of the North Vietnamese offensive against Saigon.
Tan Son Nhut came under intermittent rocket and artillery fire at sundown, but, as Green pointed out, 'frequent secondary explosions of fuel and ammunition from the initial [air] attack gave the impression of continuous shelling.' Everything became quiet around 8 p.m. Some of the Air America Filipino mechanics began refueling and conducting overnight inspections of the aircraft. Work also started on one helicopter that needed major attention after being in storage for several months. Several of the Filipinos, however, remained in shelters and refused to come out. Ronald Liechty, supervisor of helicopter maintenance, recalled that one of the mechanics 'kept shouting that they were all going to die. This wasn't conducive to getting any work done.'
Just before 4 a.m. on April 29, the NVA opened a major rocket and artillery barrage on Tan Son Nhut, with some forty rounds falling per hour. Although most of the fire was directed at the VNAF area, one round fell in the DAO complex, killing two marine guards. Helicopter pilot Tony Coalson had been trying to catch some sleep on a lumpy bed in the Air America crew center at the airport when the first rockets landed. He bolted for the bunker that was just outside operations. An eight-by-eight-foot'sandbag contraption,' it was already jammed with some fifteen people — crying secretaries from the operations office and Filipinos counting rosary beads and praying. It was oppressively hot and uncomfortable. Sand fell on Coalson's perspiration-soaked shirt as rockets exploded nearby. Anticipating screaming hoards of NVA to come climbing over the airport fence at any minute, Coalson, a Baptist, 'wished that I had a few rosary beads myself.'
At 5:30 a.m., as the enemy fire continued, chief pilot Carl Winston reported that one rocket had hit amid parked helicopters on the east ramp. The fire was too heavy for him to go out and make a damage assessment. Winston was also concerned about the conduct of helicopter pilot Victor Carpenter, who kept wandering out onto the ramp and acting strangely. He told another pilot to keep an eye on Carpenter. An hour later, Velte called a meeting at Var Green's apartment in the USAID building, where most of the supervisors and pilots were staying. Although the situation was confusing, Velte decided that the time had come to evacuate Air America's remaining fixed-wing aircraft. All pilots, fixed and rotary wing alike, were ordered to report to Tan Son Nhut at first light. At dawn, however, with shells still falling, the Vietnamese closed the airport to all but military traffic. An ominous sign of what might lie ahead came at 7 a.m. when a South Vietnamese AC-119 gunship attacking NVA positions near the airport was brought down by a Strella shoulder-fired missile.
Given the situation at Tan Son Nhut, General Smith advised Ambassador Martin shortly after 7 a.m. that fixed-wing evacuations could not continue. Martin, however, refused to accept the judgment of his senior military adviser. There were still ten thousand people to be evacuated. Martin insisted on going to Tan Son Nhut for a personal inspection, but the dangerous trip to the airport did not get underway until 9 a.m.
As Martin dithered, the enemy's fire on Tan Son Nhut eased, and Air America helicopters were finally able to begin flying. Coalson made the first trip of the day, heading over to the USAID building at 9 a.m. to pick up a load of Air America pilots. The trip nearly ended in disaster. As soon as Coalson landed on the roof, at least nine people climbed on board. With a full load of fuel, he thought that he would not be able to take off vertically from the postage stamp-size pad. He shouted that someone had to get off. But no one responded. This was, Coalson pointed out, 'the absolutely worst scenario: a full load of pilots — everyone is an expert.' He asked again for someone to deplane. The response from the group was a rousing 'It'll go!' — 'Piece of cake!' One of the pilots, Izzy Freedman, then leaned over the console and assured Coalson that there was 'no problem.'
The helicopter would barely hover — six to ten inches — at maximum power. But against his better judgment, Coalson backed up as far as he could and attempted a jump takeoff. As he went over the side of the six-story building, his rotor 'basically almost quit flying.' The only option was to nose the aircraft over in order to gain airspeed and try and regain engine RPMs. Coalson barely managed to avoid the rooftops below. 'We almost lost the rotary-wing pilots on the first pickup,' he recalled.
As other pilots continued to shuttle crews from downtown Saigon to the airport, chief pilot Winston directed Coalson, then with co-pilot Victor Carpenter, to fly over to the DAO tennis courts in order to pick up some passengers for USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the evacuation force that was standing off the coast. Coalson loaded the people on board, but refused to carry their souvenir ceramic elephants due to weight constraints. Making another marginal takeoff, he headed for the South China Sea. After an uneventful trip, Coalson landed on Blue Ridge's small helipad, dropped his passengers, and asked for a hot refueling. At that point, Carpenter decided to call it quits for the day and unloaded his equipment. 'I shut down the helicopter,' Coalson reported, 'and explained that nothing had happened yet and he should return to Saigon.'
Carpenter declined and walked off. Coalson's Filipino flight mechanic then unloaded his tools and announced that he was not going back either. 'Now that really upset me,' Coalson noted,'since I had great faith in our Filipino flight mechanics.' But there was nothing he could do. Coalson refueled, returned to Saigon, and flew solo for the rest of his 10 1/2-hour day.
While Coalson was dealing with his crew's mutiny, Air America personnel were trying to prevent VNAF pilots from stealing the company's helicopters at the airport. Shortly before 10 a.m., Frank Andrews, maintenance superintendent for rotary-wing aircraft, came running into Winston's office and reported that South Vietnamese from across the field were seizing helicopters at gunpoint. Winston instructed his pilots to get to any helicopter they could, take off, find a rooftop, and shut down. Operations manager Al Brau, fixed-wing pilot Ed Adams, and several other employees then armed themselves in an effort to provide some security for the ramp. That stabilized the situation but not before VNAF pilots stole six helicopters, one of which crashed a few minutes after taking off.
Shortly before 11 a.m., Ambassador Martin faced the inevitable and ordered the emergency evacuation of Saigon. He expected Marine Corps helicopters to fill the skies in short order. Unfortunately, confusion within the command structure caused a series of delays. General Carey did not receive orders to execute Frequent Wind until 12:15 p.m. The marine security force then had to be shifted among the ships of the evacuation fleet. As a result, the first twelve twin-engine Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters did not land at the DAO complex until 3 p.m.
At 11:30 a.m., Velte decided to shift Air America operations to the more secure DAO complex. When he arrived, he learned that the plans for a secure fuel supply for the helicopters were falling apart. Fillipi had arranged for a twelve-thousand-gallon tanker to be parked near the main DAO building. Sometime during the night of April 28-29, however, the fire marshal had ordered the truck moved — but no one knew where. When a ground search of the area failed to turn it up, a helicopter was sent up to locate the vehicle. It was found in a small locked lot near a base exchange building. Maintenance supervisor Boyd Mesecher, who was on the helicopter, landed, broke the padlock, and hot-wired the tanker. But it would not start because the battery was too weak. He returned to the main area in search of a vehicle with a battery large enough to use on the tanker, but had no luck. Returning to the vehicle, he tried to use the battery from a nearby bus, but it was dead. Without the tanker, Air America helicopters would have to refuel on the ships offshore. That meant that they would have only limited operating time in the Saigon area before making the nearly one-hour round trip to the fleet for refueling.
The situation did not look good. Of Air America's twenty-eight helicopters, six had been stolen by the Vietnamese, one could not be flown due to rocket damage, one was out of service for an engine change, and four were still in Can Tho. And more bad news lay ahead.
Pilot David B. Kendall — known as 'Farmer John' because of his rural background and fondness for wearing bib overalls when off duty — had ended up with a sick helicopter on the morning of April 29. It lacked a main generator, had no working radios, and had oil streaks running down both front windshields. But because his instruments were in the green, he took off anyway. Kendall had made several pickups of Air America personnel when Ed Reid, assistant rotary-wing chief pilot, told him to load up with passengers at the DAO and fly out to Blue Ridge to drop them off, refuel, and have light maintenance done. By the time he reached the command ship, shortly before noon, his chopper's entire windshield was covered with hydraulic oil. As he landed on the ship's single helipad, the servos emitted a growl, indicating very low hydraulic oil. Asked by the deck officer what he needed, Kendall said fuel and maintenance. He was told that there was no maintenance available. Also, he could not refuel because it would tie up the helipad. The only option was for him to ditch the aircraft alongside the ship.
As Kendall voiced his objections, the deck crew removed the doors of the helicopter, tossed them over the side, and handed him a life jacket. He looked around to see if there was another ship on which he could land, but none was in sight. As he did not have enough fuel to return to Saigon, Kendall said he 'decided to do as ordered by the deck officer.' He flew off the port side of the ship, pushed the controls of the chopper to the left, and jumped to the right from an altitude of twenty to twenty-five feet. His dramatic departure from the aircraft was filmed by a news crew on Blue Ridge and received wide distribution.
Not long after Kendall dropped his helicopter into the South China Sea, Donald R. Buxton and Dennis C. Eisler approached Blue Ridge with ten passengers. The sky seemed filled with VNAF helicopters, all trying to land on the command ship. After orbiting for thirty minutes, Buxton was allowed to use the helipad. As soon as he touched down, a ship's officer came running up and told him that he could not refuel. He would have to ditch alongside. While deckhands removed the helicopter's doors, Buxton argued that he had to return to Saigon and participate in the evacuation. The officer told him that Air America was no longer needed: The military would complete the evacuation. Buxton refused to ditch; the navy would have to push the helicopter over the side. At that point the two Air America pilots were 'firmly escorted' off the deck and confined below. They were not allowed on deck until the following day, when they discovered their helicopter sitting forward on the flight deck. 'In effect,' they later reported, 'our aircraft was impounded by the U.S. Navy…preventing us from completing our assigned mission.'
As so often happens, unpleasant incidents tend to occur in threes. And Thomas P. Grady, even before arriving on Blue Ridge, already had had an interesting morning. When he arrived on the Air America ramp, Winston told him that the Vietnamese were stealing helicopters and that he should find one and leave. Grady headed toward UH-1H 66-16162 and began putting his equipment in the aircraft. A jeep drove up with three VNAF pilots who said that they were going to take the helicopter. Grady, however, pulled out a gun and told them that they were mistaken, and they drove off. Shortly after that, a shell exploded about fifty meters away. Grady jumped into the Huey and got underway.
During the rest of the morning, Grady shuttled Air America personnel from downtown rooftops to Tan Son Nhut, receiving sporadic fire from 'friendlies' but taking no hits. After the last shuttle, he landed at the DAO tennis courts, where he was asked by a U.S. Air Force officer to take five passengers and eight hundred pounds of important cargo to Blue Ridge. When he arrived in the area, he found five VNAF helicopters, plus one of the stolen Air America Hueys, circling the ship. Low on fuel, he pulled up just in back of the ship and waited for a VNAF helicopter on the pad to leave. It departed five minutes later and ditched alongside the ship. Grady then landed and dropped off his passengers and cargo. By this time, the ship's officers apparently had learned that Air America was an essential part of the evacuation, and agreed to supply the needed JP-4 fuel.
During the hot refueling process, Grady saw several large metal objects fly through the air from the forward part of the ship. He then felt a jolt, the instrument warning lights came on, and his oil pressure headed toward zero. Shutting down and climbing out of the aircraft, Grady said he found a helicopter tail rotor blade'sticking out of the side of my engine like a knife.' (He later learned that a VNAF pilot in the stolen Air America helicopter had tried to ditch in front of the ship, but the Huey struck the bow and disintegrated.) Grady then looked up to see a VNAF helicopter attempting to land next to him. 'But it was clear,' he noted, 'that there was not enough room.' Grady grabbed his gear and ran forward. A loud bang quickly followed as the rotor blades of the two helicopters came together. The impact nearly knocked Grady's aircraft off the back of the ship. The VNAF helicopter was caught by the netting around the pad, allowing the passengers to reach safety. The deck crew pushed the VNAF aircraft over the side and pulled Grady's Huey forward, away from the helipad. The Air America helicopter obviously was through flying for the day.
By early afternoon, Velte was down to thirteen helicopters instead of the promised twenty-five. Although evacuation instructions were confused, and the Marine Corps helicopters were nowhere in sight, he decided to press ahead with Air America's part of the plan. The thirteen helicopters began shuttling evacuees from Saigon rooftop HLZs to the DAO, anticipating the eventual arrival of the military helicopters to carry them to the fleet. When pilots reached seven hundred to one thousand pounds of fuel remaining, they flew the evacuees directly to the ships, refueled, and returned to Saigon.
Most of the shuttles could be termed routine, although there was nothing routine about the entire operation. Some missions were more'sporty' than others. At age fifty-five, Chauncey J. Collard was surely the oldest helicopter pilot flying on April 29. A former navy lieutenant, he had been with Air America since 1965 and had survived the company's hazardous combat-support operations in Laos. When the Air America pilots were grabbing helicopters before the Vietnamese could steal them, Collard had ended up with UH-1H 70-15866. He was not happy with it. The Huey was notoriously tail-heavy and would shake violently at speeds over ninety knots. Several weeks before, Collard had spent two days trying to correct the center of gravity problem but without success. He would have liked another aircraft for the evacuation, but he was stuck with 866.
Compounding Collard's problems, he soon learned, was the disastrous loss of Air America's fuel tanker. The Huey carried enough JP-4 for about two hours and twenty minutes of flying. With the refueling point now sixty to eighty miles away in the South China Sea, he would be able to make only three to five trips from downtown Saigon to the DAO before he had to head out to the fleet for fuel. His shuttles went off without major incident until midafternoon, when he was directed to pick up four CIA men on the rooftop of a three-story house across the avenue from the downtown Catholic church. Not a designated HLZ, the house stood in a circle of other houses, all surrounded by tall trees. Also, there was a wall running around the roof where they waited. 'As I was alone,' Collard noted, 'I had to be careful in clearing my left side and tail from the trees and wall.'
Collard worked his way slowly to a landing. The CIA men came running out of the stairway, yelling that there were armed and unfriendly South Vietnamese on the floor below — and headed up the stairs behind them. Three of the CIA men jumped into the back of the helicopter, but the fourth individual decided that he was going to ride in the left front seat. This would be a problem because earlier in the day Collard had moved the seat full forward to prevent anyone from sitting in it. The man was 'in full panic,' Collard recalled. His eyes were huge, and he was sweating profusely. Dressed in a safari suit, Aussie bush hat, and carrying a CAR-15 carbine, he weighed more than three hundred pounds. Collard kept yelling at him to get in the back of the Huey, but he refused. 'Somehow,' Collard said in 1992, 'he managed to get his gut and butt into the seat, and I damn near lost the controls while he knocked them around doing it. I couldn't hit, or shoot him, as I had both hands full trying to hang on. When he finally sat down, I couldn't move the cyclic because his gut was against it. To this day, I don't remember climbing up through all those trees. That fat, panicky S.O.B. pulled the collective pitch control up under his arm and we were now at least 300 feet up, and fast losing turns on the main rotor. Meantime, I'm trying to stand on the collective to get it back from this bastard trying to kill us all. I'll never know how far we dropped RPM, but I finally got controls back.'
Collard flew to the embassy rooftop, about two blocks away. After landing, 'I had to wrestle with the S.O.B. again, while he tried climbing out of the seat.' He finally made it. He also managed to take with him Collard's briefcase, containing his passport and other important documents. Fortunately, another pilot spotted the briefcase as it lay on the roof and returned it to Collard later in the day.
At 3 p.m. the marine helicopters arrived. Sea Stallions, capable of carrying thirty-eight combat-loaded troops, began shuttling evacuees from the DAO complex to the fleet, while smaller seventeen-troop-capacity Boeing CH-46 Sea Knights made trips to the fleet from the embassy. Fillipi had worked with Marine Corps aviation representatives in developing a helicopter traffic control scheme so that there would be no conflict between the military and civilian aircraft. The plan worked well, as did the separate communications network for Air America aircraft upon which Fillipi had insisted.
Air America helicopters continued their rooftop operations, assisted by the arrival around 4 p.m. of the four aircraft from Can Tho. At the request of O.B. Harnage, CIA air officer at the embassy, several helicopters were assigned to collect people from the Pittman Apartments at 22 Gia Long, residence of the CIA's assistant chief of station. The helipad at the Pittman occupied a tiny space atop the building's elevator shaft. It was difficult to reach from the rooftop, and Fillipi had had a sturdy ladder built so that people could climb up to the helicopters. During one of these shuttles from the Pittman to the embassy, UPI photographer Hugh Van Es caught a dramatic shot of Harnage leaning down to help people up the ladder to a helicopter flown by Robert Caron. This photo received worldwide distribution — and fame — although the captions often mislabeled the picture as one of a military helicopter atop the roof of the U.S. Embassy.
The security situation on the rooftop HLZs deteriorated as sunset approached. Most Americans had been evacuated, and there remained only increasingly frantic Vietnamese. Larry Stadulis was flying a UH-1H with the redoubtable 'Farmer John' Kendall, who had boarded the helicopter after Stadulis earlier had landed on Blue Ridge. Stadulis was directed to pick up a single American who remained on the USAID rooftop pad. It turned out that the individual was Edward Twiford, a retired CIA employee who had been hired in March to help Air America with financial matters. Twiford had been part of the security detail that had been keeping order on the pad. Now, he was one white face among a sea of Vietnamese, many of them armed.
Stadulis and Kendall swept in and immediately executed a high hover while Ralph Begien, head of Air America's Flight Information Center, reached down and brought Twiford into the helicopter. As the Huey lifted off, four Vietnamese grabbed the skids, while others opened fire on the helicopter. Risking his own life, Begien, who was not wearing a seat belt, leaned far over the side and pulled in the four men. When the Huey later landed on USS Midway, navy personnel told Kendall that it had a single bullet hole near the fuel line. 'It is a wonder we didn't have 50 holes,' Kendall commented.
Velte called off the rooftop evacuation as it grew dark, meaning to resume operations the next day. The seventeen remaining Air America helicopters landed on the ships of the evacuation fleet in the early evening, with most of the aircraft ending up on USS Hancock. Marine helicopters continued the evacuation throughout the night and into the next morning. Ambassador Martin departed shortly before 5 a.m. on April 30. (Air America had earlier carried out his wife and their two dogs.) The last to leave — at 7:53 a.m. — was the marine detachment at the embassy. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese shortly thereafter.
Air America was credited with lifting more than a thousand people to safety. 'That was no small accomplishment, to be sure,' CIA analyst Frank Snepp observed, 'particularly in view of the fact that the maximum capacity of each Huey was barely twelve people.' But, as Ralph Begien pointed out, the number of evacuees should have been higher. 'Air America did a good job,' he wrote to his parents on May 5, 'but we all wish the order to evacuate had come earlier as we would have been able to have brought out many more people than we did.'
Air America received little acknowledgment for its efforts. But that was not surprising, given the company's policy of avoiding publicity throughout the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the helicopter pilots — supported by superb maintenance — had performed admirably in a challenging situation. Failure to provide security for the Air America ramp, chief pilot Winston pointed out, 'compromised the entire operation.' Also, lack of a safe alternative fuel supply prevented maximum use of the helicopters. Winston concluded, 'This could have been a disaster.' The operation succeeded only because of the skill and determination of the pilots. 'As a group,' Tony Coalson emphasized, 'we were the best in the business.' The company's pilots normally flew more than one hundred hours a month in difficult operational environments — and they had been doing it for years. The experience gained over the years paid off in March and April 1975. As Coalson noted, 'We flew our aircraft to their limits and beyond — and we flew ourselves to our limits.'
Honors were passed out following the fall of Saigon. The Marine Corps Association named HMH-463 the helicopter squadron of the year for 1975, and Colonel James Bolton, commander of HMH-462, the aviator of the year. On May 5, 1975, CIA Director William Colby cabled Velte: 'The withdrawal from Vietnam draws to a conclusion Air America's operational activities….Air America, appropriately named, has served its country well.' But the pilots never heard even that modest accolade. The CIA would not publicly acknowledge its ownership of the airline for another year, and it would not issue a commendation to these secret soldiers of the Cold War until 2001.
This article was written by William M. Leary and E. Merton Coulter, and originally published in the Spring 2005 edition of MHQ. William M. Leary is the E. Merton Coulter Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia. Anthony F. Czajkowski is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and contract historian with the CIA. This article is adapted from a book that they are writing about Air America.
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