Saigon was falling to the North Vietnamese, and all Americans were being evacuated from the country. Many were flown by helicopter and small fixed-wing aircraft to carriers in our flotilla, as well as some ships with helicopter landing pads – including the ship I was on.
In addition to the Americans, thousands and thousands of South Vietnamese were also fleeing – in aircraft of every description, and boats of every size right down to inflatable dinghys. The ships in the flotilla, including mine, picked up large numbers of these refugees from boats. Some ships, especially the carriers, were also accepting the South Vietnamese aircraft. There was no room to store those aircraft, so they were simply pushed over the side. My ship accepted a few helicopters, and every one of them was pushed over the side. I was a member of one of the working parties that dumped those aircraft, just as you see in the photo above (that photo was taken on the USS Okinawa, another ship in the flotilla).
The ships involved, all told, rescued around 25,000 people in just a few days. It was a crazy, chaotic time – frantic, desperate people were everywhere. The ship was full of refugees, all terribly uncertain what their future held for them. The sea was full of boats, some filled with people; others abandoned. Flotsam was everywhere. The skies were full of aircraft, and those aircraft were not being controlled – every pilot was acting independently, and many of them were running low on fuel. There were accidents, and some people died or were injured – but the vast majority of those refugees were rescued successfully. The amount of military gear that went to the bottom of the South China Sea in those few days was simply staggering.
There are many amazing stories from that incident. Here's one that I first read today...