Helicopter pilot recalls rush to evacuate before Fall of Saigon

By LAUREN SAGE REINLIE | Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach | Published: April 29, 2013

On April 29, 1975, Bob Caron was anxious.

He had known for days the last Americans were planning to evacuate Saigon just ahead of the North Vietnamese barreling south to take over the city.

The 41-year-old Air America helicopter pilot was hoping orders would come sooner so they would have time to get more people out and onto the safe harbor of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Instead, he got word at a late-morning breakfast leaving them with hours —not days — to save as many people as they could.

“It was chaos with a capital C,” Caron said recently from his home in Fort Walton Beach.

There were few Americans left in Saigon at that point, but thousands of South Vietnamese likely would be killed or imprisoned when the North Vietnamese arrived. As word spread the Americans were leaving, they grabbed precious few belongings, crammed them into small suitcases and made for the rooftops with their eyes set on the great unknown of a giant boat’s deck.

Air America and the U.S. military had a plan.

They had tested rooftops of the embassy and other buildings across the city to make sure they could handle the weight of a chopper. The pilots would land and load up those evacuating or fleeing and whisk them to the parking lot of the PX. Navy planes would transport them to the deck of the aircraft carrier.

Caron made several trips to the parking lot.

The rooftop landings were precarious because they were riddled with pipes and other obstacles, but Caron felt confident the surface would hold as long as he kept the blades spinning to have some lift.

As Caron landed on the rooftop of the Pittman building, there were already dozens of people waiting for him. They had crammed onto a rickety ladder leading up to the rooftop. At least 50 were on the rungs.

There wouldn’t be room or time for them all, he knew. The mission was to be called off at dusk.

They fit as many people as they could inside the chopper. They’d stretch a seatbelt across five or six bodies.

“At that point in time you are not too worried about seatbelt safety, you just want to get the hell out of there,” Caron said.

His helicopter was captured on film on the roof of the Pittman building in an image that became iconic of the day.

As daylight dwindled, Caron began flying people all the way out to the aircraft carrier, a scene of even more chaos. Pilots were being asked to abandon their helicopters mid-air because there wasn’t enough room on the boat.

Caron said he made at least three trips to the carrier.

His primary concern at that point was running out of gas, but today he is still haunted by ghosts of those left behind.

“They were doomed,” he said.

He remembers people throwing their children over fences: if you can’t save me, take my child. They were so scared, they knew they were going to be killed.

“Sometimes I can’t even think straight,” he said as he choked up, recalling the day. “It was criminal.”

In part, he faults the U.S. Ambassador. He says he dragged his feet about putting the evacuation plan into action.

About 3,000 Vietnamese made it to the aircraft carrier.

Caron had been in Vietnam for about 10 years by the time Saigon fell.

The North Vietnamese victory came shortly after the United States announced its plan to withdraw troops from the war that had been waged for over a decade.

Caron first arrived with the Army and then returned in 1968 as a pilot with Air America, the covert CIA operation.

He had expected to be there longer and leaving Saigon was emotional.

“We loved our job,” he said of himself and the other Air America crews. “We really loved what we did and we thought we were doing something good. We had a commitment to the Vietnamese people and we thought we would honor that and we’d be there another five or ten years trying to make the peace.

“It didn’t work,” he said. “There was a lot of anger, frustration and disappointment about that.”

Caron made it onto the deck of another boat bound for home along with the carrier’s new refugees.

They would cross the Pacific, thousands of miles of deep blue sea reflecting the defeated’s retreat, and then start anew.

The Vietnam War was over.