WASHINGTON -- Just before first light April 30, 35 years ago this week, a U.S. Marine CH-46 helicopter from HMM-165, call sign "Lady Ace 09," landed on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam, to pick up Ambassador Graham Martin. Moments later, a message -- classified "secret" by the National Security Agency -- was flashed to the Oval Office informing the president, "Lady Ace 09 has the ambassador and his immediate staff on board."
Over the next several hours, dozens more messages were transmitted to the commander in chief, detailing virtually in real time herculean efforts to evacuate the remaining Americans from the city as North Vietnamese army, or NVA, regulars closed in on our last diplomatic, military and intelligence missions in the Republic of Vietnam. The now-declassified Operation Frequent Wind intercepts in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library read like a novel.
Nineteen minutes after the first transmission: "Lady Ace 09 reports feet wet. ... Lady Ace 13 reports outbound with 16 USA. ... Lady Ace 10 going in for landing." Two of the cables describe CS tear gas that nearly blinded the pilots. A half-hour into the evacuation: "Lady Ace 14 is on the roof. He reports small-arms fire on the northeast corner of the building in a small clump of trees at ground level. Lady Ace is loading at this time." Then, three minutes later: "Spectre reports numerous firefights all around the building. Swift 33 inbound feet dry. Lady Ace 14 reports off with 21 pax." The abbreviation "pax" is military-speak for passengers.
At 7:53 a.m., the final helicopter off the embassy roof -- a Marine CH-46 from HMM-164, call sign "Swift 22" -- brought out Maj. James Kean, the Marine Security Guard commander, and the last 10 of his Marines. Less than four hours later, NVA armor and infantry captured the presidential palace in Saigon.
This week, Lady Ace 09, freshly painted in Vietnam-era markings, was commemorated at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in California. Among the pilots and aircrew who gathered for the celebration were those like retired Col. Gerald Berry, who saved the U.S. ambassador and helped rescue more than 7,100 Americans and our allies during the frantic hours of Operation Frequent Wind. There were even more attendees who were veterans of the current war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But no matter where or when they fought, nearly all had a common refrain: "This war shouldn't end like Vietnam." It doesn't have to.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.