‘Flawless operation’ saved many in Vietnam

AP/FILE South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, on April 29, 1975, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans depart from Vietnam.

Forty years ago, then-Marine Maj. James Livingston stood inside the American Embassy in Saigon watching the panic of a nation in collapse.

South Vietnam had a few hours of life left, but the evacuation in the face of the communist onslaught wasn’t moving as fast as it should.

Livingston, who by 1975 was a decorated Medal of Honor recipient, quickly recognized something had to be done to speed things along. He looked at the trees cluttering the embassy grounds, realizing there had to be more landing zones.

“I was the guy that said we had to cut them down,” he said.

Thursday’s 40th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam marks the final chapter of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Yet even in retreat Livingston views the closing moments as a success of numbers, people and coordination.

More than 125,000 Vietnamese, many of them children, escaped in the final hours to find new lives in the U.S. and elsewhere, with minimal loss of life.

“It was an absolutely flawless operation,” said Livingston, now a retired major general living in Mount Pleasant.

In April 1975, with South Vietnam being overrun province by province by the communist North, Livingston — one of 258 Medal of Honor recipients from Vietnam — was sent from Okinawa to Vietnam to help move “at-risk” Vietnamese, those who had worked or fought for the U.S. mission. He’d been awarded his medal five years earlier after leading his men through an intense attack on the heavily fortified village of Dai Do in 1968, being wounded three times.

Livingston’s 1975 mission began in the northern part of the country, around DaNang, by getting refugees out to a fleet of Navy vessels waiting off the coast, including old Liberty Ships from World War II. “We had 20,000 each aboard those sons of a guns,” he said.

As the country was overrun from North to South, Livingston later flew into Saigon on a CIA helicopter to assess how best to evacuate friendlies from the capital city. “I had as much expertise as anybody else, I guess,” he said.

That final effort would fall under the heading of “Operation Frequent Wind,” a massive commitment of all available military aircraft April 29-30, 1975.

During an interview Wednesday, Livingston said he knew the clock was working against everyone involved as Washington wanted all U.S. troops out and without incident.

“I knew we had limited time because the rockets were coming into Saigon,” he said of the fast-approaching North Vietnamese forces.

Livingston’s base of operation was a military headquarters and airfield previously used by U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland. From that field, throngs of refugees would crush onto overcrowded helicopters hoping to be shuttled to aircraft carriers waiting at sea. It was chaotic and families were sometimes separated. When the end came after a 16-hour countdown, Livingston crammed into a cargo chopper along with 49 other Marines and flew to safety before the city was cut off.

“It was the last helicopter to come out of that particular compound,” he said.

Livingston isn’t the only Charleston area resident who is watching Thursday’s anniversary. Joe Caruso, of Summerville, is a former Marine helicopter pilot who’d shipped out of Vietnam long before the final collapse. But as a veteran chopper pilot, he watched the final hours of the evacuation while glued to a TV set.

Caruso remembers recognizing some of the same Navy carriers he’d flown off on his CH-46, carriers that were now becoming landing platforms for refugees.

“To use the word ‘nauseating’ doesn’t really carry the weight,” Caruso said Wednesday as he recalled seeing those final images of helicopters being pushed over the side. “To see the end to a war that cost the lives of 58,000 servicemen and women ... I’m lost for words,” he added. “I’m literally nauseated.”

Forty years later, Livingston said there has been much healing ahead of the anniversary. For instance, just three weeks ago he had returned to Vietnam, but as a tourist. Still, he wishes he could have done more on that final day.

“The sadness of the story is I had to walk off and leave all the kids and Vietnamese families who worked for” the U.S., he said.

“But there was not a damn thing that I could do.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551