LOS ANGELES – On the morning of April 29, 1975, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” blared on the radio. The holiday classic was secret code for the start of the evacuation, dubbed “Operation Frequent Wind,” the largest airlift of its kind.
Those final moments before the fall of Saigon are seared into the memory of Frank Snepp, the CIA’s former chief strategist in Vietnam and one of the last Americans to get out. Snepp says Marine guards beat back the Vietnamese on the rooftop, so he could get a seat on the helicopter.
“It arched up and I could see on the edge of the city 140,000 North Vietnamese troops moving in with the lights on,” said Snepp. “We move out toward the coastline and we suddenly began taking ground fire … and the helicopter pilot wrenched the controls and we gained altitude and got out.”
More than 60 military and Air America choppers took part in the operation. Pilots flew more than 600 flights, airlifting 7,000 people out on that final day, including 900 from the U.S. Embassy alone.
On the last day, Snepp said, the Embassy was shaking, as the incinerators on the roof rumbled on full blast turning tons of classified material to ash. In the last stretch, he and others blew up NSA communications equipment with hand grenades.
As word got out that the Americans were leaving, thousands of South Vietnamese swarmed the Embassy gates, desperate to flee. Many had worked directly for the U.S. mission in Vietnam and were considered “high risk.”
Many wound up in Orange County, California. Some 200,000 Vietnamese-Americans live in and around the cities of Garden Grove and Westminster, giving it the nickname Little Saigon. Snepp lives just an hour away, but when he met America Tonight in a Little Saigon mall recently, he admitted it's a rare visit. He says it feels like walking through “a hall of ghosts.”
“I look around at these faces … and I’m always unconsciously trying to identify somebody I know – a face, an expression, a smile,” Snepp said. “…I’m always saying goodbye to the Vietnamese. And when I see people here, I’m always saying goodbye to the memory that I carry with me.”