For some time before the North Vietnamese had launched their final offensive, U.S. authorities in Vietnam had been developing contingency evacuation plans if the "worst" were to occur. Their Talon Vise Plan, or Operation Frequent Wind as it was later called, was extremely complex. Top priority was the evacuation from Vietnam of all of the estimated seven thousand American troops and civilians. Talon Vise as originally proposed gave the American ambassador four options-evacuation by:
1. Commercial airlift from Tan Son Nhut, the airport outside Saigon, or any other available airports.
2. Military airlift from Tan Son Nhut.
3. Sea lift from the port serving Saigon.
4. Helicopter lift to U.S. Navy ships nearby.
Not even the most careful planners could have foreseen the military catastrophe that befell South Vietnam in spring 1975. All four evacuation options had assumed the cooperation and protection of the South Vietnamese armed forces. But the unreliability of South Vietnamese troops would pose a dangerous threat to Talon Vise.
A further complication was the vaguely conceived plan to evacuate up to two hundred thousand endangered South Vietnamese. The endangered category applied to all South Vietnamese who had worked closely with U.S. military or government agencies and were supposedly on a North Vietnamese execution list. The list included political figures, military officers, and government employees. Also on the list were those employed in the Central Intelligence Agency's Phoenix program, which had killed thousands of Vietcong sympathizers and supporters.
U.S. Ambassador Martin drew fire for refusing to trigger Operation Talon Vise until the final stages of the North Vietnamese offensive. To the end Martin remained an outspoken supporter of the Thieu regime and, according to his critics, "dragged his feet" on implementing the evacuation plans. Martin's critics also charged that the U.S. Embassy's evacuation procedures even in mid-April were disorganized. In the confusion, a secret embassy signal code for starting the evacuation was accidentally disclosed when a marine guard at the embassy gate mistakenly handed out copies of it to anyone going inside. The coded message was to be broadcast over the American-run radio station in Saigon followed by the playing of "White Christmas."
As part of Talon Vise, the U.S. Defense Attach? Office (DAO) had set up a command center at Tan Son Nhut to coordinate the processing and evacuation of refugees. Under its direction, the evacuation of Americans and Vietnamese proceeded quietly during the first two weeks of April. DAO officials had wanted to speed up the evacuation but had been stymied by Ambassador Martin. He feared that a full-scale evacuation might cause widespread panic. Department of Defense officials fumed at the delays: "We were sending planes and they were coming back half and two-thirds empty."
In the third week of April, word came from Washington ordering the U.S. Embassy to evacuate all but essential American personnel as quickly as possible. When embassy officials went into action, however, they realized that they had miscalculated the number of Americans in South Vietnam. They had originally expected seven thousand Americans. But unaccounted for Americans and even military deserters soon began showing up, many with Vietnamese wives, children, and in-laws. Embassy officials now had to contend with an evacuation figure that topped thirty-five thousand Americans, including their dependents.
By April 20 the evacuation airlift from Tan Son Nhut had accelerated considerably. Instead of a few hundred per day as before, DAO supervisors were processing and evacuating three to five thousand people every twenty-four hours. At the evacuation compound they worked around the clock against seemingly insurmountable odds to fly as many people out as possible . Time was the crucial factor. The airlift could continue only so long as Tan Son Nhut remained free of enemy fire, and the North Vietnamese were expected to attack almost any time.
The evacuation process at Tan Son Nhut resembled a long assembly line. Tired and entirely frustrated refugees, both Americans and Vietnamese, moved through an endless series of checkpoints for passports, identification, baggage checking, flight assignment, and boarding. Tempers were short, and one American caught in the slow-moving line of refugees shouted, "Find out where we get our shots and let's get out of here!"
For most Americans, a free ride to safety required only the proper identification papers and a passport. Those with Vietnamese dependents, however, encountered more difficulties. U.S. and South Vietnamese government red tape demanded proof that all Vietnamese claims for dependent status were legitimate. Many Americans sought evacuation not only for immediate Vietnamese family members, as permitted by regulations, but also for distant cousins and in-laws. Some Americans even sought passage for their Vietnamese maids and servants.
For every South Vietnamese fortunate enough to have that most coveted status-an "American connection"-there were hundreds of thousands of refugees just as afraid of being killed but unable to find a way out. According to a U.S. intelligence report, the odds against a Vietnamese escaping were fifty to one if he or she did not have an American relative or friend willing to guarantee financial assistance in the U.S. Many South Vietnamese were ready to sacrifice themselves to evacuate their loved ones with an American sponsor. A forlorn widow vainly pleaded with an American, "For God's sake, take my little boy out of Vietnam and raise him. If he stays, the Communists will take him from me to raise him their way, so he is lost to me anyway. Give him this chance, please."
There were South Vietnamese military personnel at Tan Son Nhut who had no legal means of evacuating but used whatever leverage they could to flee. Members of the South Vietnamese Air Force flew themselves and their families to U.S. air bases in Thailand or seized helicopters to reach U.S. aircraft carriers off the coast. The scene at Tan Son Nhut was ugly as soldiers and refugees fought to board South Vietnamese aircraft. Many fell or were pushed off the loading ramps as the planes taxied out. DAO officials tried to discourage these unauthorized flights, but desperate South Vietnamese pilots ignored the orders. A few crazed South Vietnamese flight crews even threatened to shoot down U.S. evacuation planes unless granted landing clearance in Thailand.
The Last Goodbye
By Chuck Neil
American Services Radio (ASR) from March 1973 to April 1975
Message from the Special Security Office, Saigon
April 26, 1975