Memories 40 Years after the end of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. The city of Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam and was captured by communist troops from the North. There were three million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 US soldiers who died in the war.

The fall of Saigon came after Operation Frequent Wind. It was the last phase in the evacuation of American civilians and “at risk” Vietnamese from Saigon, and took place April 29th and April 30th, 1975. Operation Frequent Wind is the largest helicopter evacuation, and was also the first major operation that involved the use of US Air Force helicopters from an aircraft carrier. US policy involved removing  “at risk” Vietnamese who had supported efforts to stop the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. During the operation, more than 6,000 South Vietnamese refugees were escaped from Saigon when the North Vietnamese attacked.

These refugees were leaving behind fear, immeasurable losses, and pain inflicted upon themselves and their country.

In addition, the Vietnam War was a prolonged and costly military conflict that tore life apart back in the states. Highly controversial in nature, it led to controversial policies, protest, draft-card burning and lots of questions.


While many people have many answers, a nation can remember one thing. Millions of people stood up and took an oath when others backed down. Veterans raised their hands when others fled. Service members answered the call when their country needed them. From displaying values such as: courage, duty, integrity, and honor – a nation has come to appreciate its veterans, even those who fought in a war as unpopular as Vietnam. “Honor the fallen, honor the veteran; separate the war from the warrior.”

Here are a few memories from the end of the Vietnam War from those who served:

Don Thomson of Lake Lotawana, Missouri.

Don Thomson of Lake Lotawana, Missouri.

“Flew for the Navy for 20 years, made an inter-service transfer to The Missouri Army National Guard and flew Cobra gunships and other aircraft for them for 18 years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. In Vietnam I was a Navy Seawolf pilot based with 3 SEAL Platoons at the Navy’s Solid Anchor base.   I’m proud of the Navy SEAL’s, PBR and Swift boat drivers whose lives we saved.  We were treated really badly for many years after our return.   We are treated wonderfully now but I’ll always have a hang-up with the protesting, draft card burning, free-love, druggie, instant Canadian counter culture crowd that harassed us so upon our return.” -Don Thomson of Missouri. Served  20 years in Navy and 18 years in Army from Oct. 2, 1966  to  Dec. 14, 2003.


Richard Whittaker of Indiana

“During Operation Frequent Wind I was serving on board the USS HANCOCK CV-19.  I was witness to the V-NAV helicopters being stripped of all contraband and pushed over the side of the flight deck to make room for our helicopters to return.  I saw the people that were on these helos  being taken off and put in the hanger bay to be watched and guarded.  The Marines would take off all the contraband and throw it over the side. They threw food, wine, packages and weapons into the water.” -Richard Whittaker of Indiana. Served Aug. 1967 to Oct. 1989

“I was stationed aboard the USS Durham LKA 114. In March, 1975, I remember getting the word while we were in port in Subic Bay, Philippines that we were headed to Viet Nam. After we got underway we started prepping to receive refugees from Viet Nam. My division was in charge of building outhouses and showers for the refuges. We welded a frame hanging on the sides of the ship with canvas tubes for the waste to go down. We also built showers that used salt water instead of fresh water. We anchored in Can Rahn Bay the first afternoon along with the USS Debuque (I believe). Soon after anchoring the Dubuque was fired upon. Both ship left the Bay and anchored in open water about 6 miles off shore. First thing the next morning the refuge boats started arriving. There were all types of people. They just kept coming. As they came on board they and their luggage was searched. Weapons and contraband were thrown over the side. They were escorted to a cargo hold. The corpsmen checked them out. A little girl feel overboard and a crewman jumped in and rescued her. A 70 year old man paddled a round reed boat 6 miles out to my ship. 5 Vietnamese soldiers dividing a big roll of money between them. A woman with 9 children, only 4 were hers. So many refuge boats trying to unload that we used fire hoses to separate them and calm them down. A man coming on-board with $1,000,000.00 in gold in a briefcase. Bringing food to them, they didn’t like it. Stripping a Huey helicopter and pushing it over the side. So many people. I remember thinking, “They’ll never see their home again.” We off loaded them onto our landing craft the next day and transported them to a merchant ship. It was either the Greenville Victory or the Trans Colorado. It was so full of people. I’ve always wondered what happened to those 4500 people we had on board. Where did they end up? Lots of fragmented memories.” -Ken Binam of Colorado. Served April 1973 to April 1977

“I served in Vietnam from 3/17/68-3/15/69 northwest of Saigon. Our base camp was Cu Chi but I was also at Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, Trang Bang, Duc Hua & Hoc Mon. My memory of the last days of the war were me watching on the nightly news all the areas I was at in Vietnam falling one by one to the NVA. The news reports really followed how each area I served fell to the NVA. It gave me a hollow feeling especially when Hoc Mon, which is just a few miles northwest of Saigon fell. Finally, when Saigon fell, it was just simply over & I didn’t really know what to feel so I let it all go. Watching the whole country fall was one thing but watching the areas you served in fall was something else.” -Michael Amato of Connecticut. Served June 1967 to April 1969. 

3dbe3874adbb0304a2_sqm6yh8ps“My story comes from April 30, 1975. [The] front page of Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes.”-Johnny, stationed at Clark AB,  Republic of Philippines.

“What do you remember or know about the last days of the Vietnam War?”

“1971-74 I served on the USS Vega (AF-59) off the coast of Vietnam for a good portion of that time.  My best friend on the ship and I had decided that when we got out we would go to college together in Bend, OR (his hometown).  I got out ahead of him and when he and one of my sisters, who moved with me to Bend, helped us move to Bend they became a couple.  My friend got transferred to the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) and returned to Southeast Asia.  The Coral Sea helped provide support for the evacuation of Saigon.  While the helicopters were busy transporting people from the city of Saigon many people were leaving the country in anything that would float. 

Carl of Bend, Oregon

Carl of Bend, Oregon

The ships of the US and other countries were rescuing as many of these people as they could, but were simply overwhelmed with more people than they could handle. My sister and I were very concerned about what was happening on the USS Coral Sea and to my friend.  Adding to our concern was that we had learned that my friend had been very ill during this whole time.  Many brave men and women did extraordinary things at this time and it was very difficult for me to not be there side by side with my shipmates.” -Carl of Oregon. Served in the Navy from 1971 – 1974

“I was stationed at Chu Lai, Viet Nam 1966-1967  with the 196th LIB.  I
was Inf. CO A 4/31.  My squad was walking down a trail about to enter a burned out village.  To our left was a river running by the village. We were told that the river was a free fire zone.  I saw three san pans floating down the river.  My squad knelt down behind a rice patty dike and opened fire on the san pans.  I heard someone at the end right of the squad yelling I’m hit, I’m hit as clear as possible and in perfect English.  I stood up and as I turned to my right I saw a bright yellow flash. I didn’t hear the explosion, I was knocked out. They say I was blown five feet into the air.  I saw myself floating through the air like a feather and landing on the ground as light as a feather.  When I came to my Platoon Sarg. Rock.  was standing over me and the first thing I said to him was, “Who else got hit?”  He said, “no one got hit but you.” I told him what I had heard and again he said that I was the only one that got hit.  If I would not have stood up the shrapnel would have hit me in the face and chest causing certain death, instead I got hit in the left leg, minor wounds.  There is no doubt in my mind that an angel told me to stand up that day so my life would be saved.  It was too loud for me to hear a human voice.” -Dan Wolverton of  West Virginia. Served from July 1965 to Sept. 1970.

“I was stationed on board the USS Hancock, CVA 19 for two Vietnam cruises, ’73 and ’75. On April 30th, 1975, we were stationed within site of Vietnam for the evacuation of Saigon. As I recall, it went on for the better part of two days. I was a hull tech, which is basically a welder, sheet metal fabricator, plumber, and firefighter all rolled into one. During the evacuation, i spent much of my off duty hours standing on the island of the ship watching all hell

Tim Harned of   Orangevale, California

Tim Harned of Orangevale, California

break loose. The sky was filled with choppers being piloted by south Vietnamese pilots. On board were all manner of people and belongings. there is a certain procedure to be followed when landing a chopper on board a pitching deck. But the pilots were disregarding this and landing wherever they could find a spot. it got crazy in a hurry. They were hitting guy  wires and coming very close to any number of hazards on the flight deck. as they landed, they were met at gunpoint by our Marines until they could be searched. by the time it was all over, we had a pile of weapons, mostly handguns, piled on the flight deck. i would estimate that the cone shaped pile was probably 15′ at the base and just as high. I’ve never seen so many guns in one place before. As I recall, we took back nearly two thousand refugees to grande island, subic bay, in the Philippines. they stayed in the hangar bay for the trip back to subic. the flight deck was littered with choppers and more in the air looking for someplace to land. the captain made a command decision and told us to push them over the side, so we did. one after another. I  don’t remember how many. I was 21 years old and this was my second cruise to Tonkin Gulf. it was an amazing sight for a young kid, one I will never forget. one of our choppers was flying security around our ship for much of the evacuation. disaster struck when they were running low on fuel and had no place to land because of all the refugee choppers all over the flight deck. A decision was made to ditch in the ocean, about 50 yards off our port bow. I watched the chopper go down. four men went down with it, only two came up. It was a terrible sight to behold. I could be wrong, but i did some research decades later, and i believe they were the last two men killed in the Vietnam war. i think they are the last two names inscribed on the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington. April 30, 1975. we had also participated in the evacuation of Phnom Penh a few weeks earlier. When the evacuation of Saigon was finally over, we took our refugees back to grande island. i was chosen for a working party to put wristbands on all the refugees, one by one, so we had some means of keeping track of the numbers. I don’t know the total, but it know it was several thousand easily. after we dropped them off, our carrier headed for Australia. i was finally gonna get to become a shellback, which is a ceremony you go thru when you cross the equator. We were saving up garbage on the fantail of the ship to use in the initiation. There is no rank when it comes to changing from a pollywog to a shellback, so officers were gonna get the same treatment as the enlisted men. Just a day or two shy of the equator, the USS Mayuguez was hijacked in the south china sea. we had to turn back to participate in the effort to rescue the civilian Americans on board the mayuguez. 18 marines were killed in that mission, 3 of them after accidentally being left behind by the rescue choppers on koh tang island. Those 3 were killed by the khmer rouge and buried on the island. and thus came to a close the involvement of u.s. forces in Southeast Asia. i got out in Sept. of ’76. a couple years later, i was watching the movie “Deer Hunter.” In the theater. toward the end of the movie, and it was a long movie, they showed a 15 second film clip of actual evacuation footage. It was after Robert Deniro went back to rescue his buddy, Christopher Walken, who had stayed behind in saigon to make money playing Russian roulette. I won’t give away the plot, in case some people haven’t seen it yet, which by the way I would highly recommend watching the movie. Anyways, right after that scene, they showed a film clip of choppers being pushed over the side of a carrier. my carrier. I was standing on the island of the ship, under the big number 19, with a bunch of other guys, watching this take place. I have a similar picture in my ship’s yearbook to show people who look at me funny when i tell them i was in the movie. I did a double take in the theater when i saw that scene. It won 5 academy awards, including best picture. I don’t remember getting any royalty checks, but i guess we gave that up when we signed on the dotted line. which, by way, i had to have a note from my mom and dad to join up, since i was only 17 at the time. strange days indeed for wide eyed kid. just a final footnote, that i thought was rather cool. as we headed back to the states, after one of our cruises,  we crossed over the international dateline on new years eve. It was weird. we had two consecutive new year’s eve’s in a row. I remember seeing some officers with bottles of booze. crazy. That is all. sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. I want a clean sweep, fore and aft. The smoking lamp is lit……peace, out.”-Tim Harned of California. Served in the Navy Aug. 1972 – Sept. 1976

“Nothing special, just supplied the real combat units with ammo when they needed it.”-Walter. Served 1964-1966060814c18133973705_t7m6bxlvl

After years of reflection and experience, what have we learned, or what should we have learned, from the Vietnam War?

Respect those who serve. A nation has learned to not hold the troops accountable for a war they were not involved in starting. The values veterans exemplify should be celebrated, not shamed. Today, around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, you see many Vietnam veterans talking about their service with pride. They come to The Wall in Washington, D.C. that holds more than 58,000 names. It is a solemn place. A place of reflection. It is a place to heal, to move forward, to learn from. This memorial shows the human cost of war. Let the lessons of the past allow individuals to be more careful in the future.

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

What these veterans learned in combat served them well. They take the lessons they learned during the war with them today. Many fight personal demons or medical issues caused by their service, such as Agent Orange.  They are scarred — psychologically and physically. For some, the scars remain decades later. For others, some have made peace with themselves.

As one Vietnam veteran said, “You stand for what is right, and you help others before you help yourself. You live life as it is supposed to be lived so that no one’s death didn’t matter.”

To all of our veterans, thank you for your service and welcome home.

We will never forget.