It’s been nearly 50 years since the fall of Saigon, but for retired Marine Corps Colonel Gerald “Gerry” Berry, details of that historic event seem like yesterday. On April 29, 1975, 30-year-old Captain Berry was the first, and one of the last, Marine Corps helicopter pilots conducting airlift evacuations from the U.S. Embassy to a fleet of U.S. Navy ships in the South China Sea. His mission, dubbed “Embassy Snatch,” was to get U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin aboard the “Lady Ace 09,” Berry’s Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter and transport him to the USS Blue Ridge.
The United States’ direct military involvement in the 20-year conflict between North and South Vietnam had ended two years earlier with the signing of the Paris Peace Accord. More than 58,000 American lives had been lost. Peace was temporary, however, as North Vietnamese troops renewed their assault on the South. Without support from the United States, the South Vietnamese Army was weakened, and, by 1974, had abandoned provinces to the Communist regime.
When the North Vietnamese began their final push toward the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in March 1975, air evacuations from Tan Son Nhut Air Base had already begun. More than 50,000 American civilians and at-risk South Vietnamese managed to escape before the airport was bombed on April 28. By the next day, 150,000 North Vietnamese troops were advancing toward Saigon, poised to take control of the city.
At 10:51 a.m. on April 29, Ambassador Martin gave orders to commence Operation Frequent Wind, a helicopter evacuation of American civilians and South Vietnamese from the Defense Attaché Office compound, adjacent to the bombed airport, as well as staff from the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon. Landing zones were created in the embassy parking lot and on the rooftop. As Armed Forces Radio repeatedly played “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” signaling an evacuation was underway, thousands of South Vietnamese men, women, and children crowded the streets and embassy grounds in a desperate attempt to escape.
“At about 1 p.m., I’m the first one to land at the embassy, so I call the Marine security guard over and say, ‘I’m here to get the ambassador,’” explains Berry, who resides in Vero Beach with his wife, Kate. “He says the ambassador isn’t ready, so they load me up with third-country nationals, Americans, and some Vietnamese, and we take off.”
When I called ‘feet wet’ [flying over water] to the USS Okinawa, they vectored me to the command ship, the USS Blue Ridge, where Brigadier General Richard Carey and Admiral Donald Whitmire stood by to greet the ambassador. We had a specific call sign—‘Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!’—to communicate when I had the ambassador. I didn’t say that, so I assumed they knew I didn’t have him. But when I landed on the USS Blue Ridge, General Carey and Admiral Whitmire came out and wanted to know where the ambassador was. General Carey said, ‘You have to get the ambassador!’”
That episode marked the beginning of 18.3 hours of nonstop flying—an experience Berry undoubtedly never anticipated when he was drafted eight years earlier, one month before his graduation from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
“I was familiar with the Marine Corps because my father was a Marine during World War II,” says the Montana native. “But the World War II generation didn’t talk much about their experience. I went to my fraternity house, where there was a guy in the Marine Platoon Leaders Class. He drove me down to the officer selection office in Des Moines. After passing the test, I looked up and saw a big poster of an F-4 Phantom jet with a handsome Marine in an orange flight suit standing in front of it. ‘Can I do that?’ I asked the recruiter. He said, ‘Take another test.’”
After passing the second test and sailing through a physical at Great Lakes Naval Station several weeks later, Berry was on his way to becoming a Marine with an aviation guarantee.
“I was very physically fit, so I performed well during the brutal physical training at Officer Candidates School,” recalls Berry, a former quarterback and captain of the Simpson Storm football team. “Then, I was called downstairs. There was a brigadier general, a colonel, and a major. I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ They said, ‘We want you to be the first Marine to go to Army Flight School.’” As Berry contemplated the offer, the major added, “Candidate Berry, you’ll get 25 extra dollars a day, and you don’t have to go to the basic school. You can go directly to Army Flight School.”
“I said I’d love to do it and I was shipped off to Mineral Wells, Texas, where I learned to fly helicopters,” Berry says. “They needed helicopter pilots because they were losing too many of them in Vietnam.”
In January 1969, Berry began a 13-month tour of Vietnam, flying U.S. troops in and out of combat. “It was quite intense,” he says. “I was never shot down, but I took 76 hits in one reconnaissance extract.”
Berry returned to the States in February 1970, and the Marines, staying true to their commitment, sent him to jet transition training in Meridian, Mississippi. There, he learned to fly fixed-wing planes and served as an instructor until he was transitioned to flying OV-10 Broncos.
As the situation in Vietnam escalated in 1974, a former commander tapped Berry’s expertise flying CH-46 helicopters and asked him to relocate to Okinawa to assist in the impending evacuations. It’s likely that Berry’s expertise also landed him the Embassy Snatch mission during the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975.
On that historic day, Berry and 70 other Marine, Air Force, Navy, and Air America helicopter pilots flew nonstop from the grounds and roof of the U.S. Embassy to ships waiting off the coast. Together, they airlifted nearly 7,000 Americans, South Vietnamese, and foreign nationals to safety.
There was only one hitch. The ambassador refused to come. It occurred to Berry that the ambassador was allowing others to leave first and may even be prepared to go down with the ship, so to speak. But the young Marine was determined to complete his mission.
“The interesting thing is the crowds in and around the embassy never got smaller,” says Berry. The helicopters, which typically held 20 armed soldiers, were being packed with 60 to 70 Vietnamese on every trip. “About every fourth trip, I get vectored to the USS Blue Ridge, and each time I land, General Carey and Admiral Whitmire ask where the ambassador is. I think to myself, ‘You have communication with the embassy; I don’t. This is crazy!’”
As the day wore on and he made more trips to and from the embassy, Berry noticed smoke billowing from barrels on the embassy property. “I realized they were burning documents and money,” he says.
As nighttime approached and the weather started to deteriorate, Berry’s CH-46 started taking more small-arms fire. In the streets, he could see men in uniform, but it was unclear whose side they were on. “At 10 p.m. the crowd is no smaller, and I’m thinking we can’t finish this.”
In the ensuing hours, Berry and his wingman realized that there were fewer helicopters in the air, and by 1 a.m. radio chatter had ceased. “At about 3:30 or 4 a.m., I called helicopter direction control on the USS Okinawa to report that I could see tanks getting closer to the city, but there were still lots of people at the embassy, including the ambassador.” Direction control also confirmed that there were only two helicopters still flying. Operation Frequent Wind had been shut down for crew rest and maintenance, but nobody bothered to inform Berry.
“Now I’m frustrated, angry, and in Marine Corps terms, really pissed off,” says Berry. “So, I fly back in and I land at the embassy at 4:56 a.m. When they load more Vietnamese and third-country nationals onto the helicopter, I tell the crew chief, ‘Get them off, we’re not taking them.’ I call Marine security and say, ‘Go tell the ambassador that this aircraft isn’t leaving the roof until he’s on board.’ Then, in my best aviator voice, I say ‘The president sends.’”
“Suddenly, the ambassador and his whole entourage are on board,” exclaims Berry. “Now, I’m flying out and thinking I could’ve done this 10 hours ago! I radio out, ‘Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!’ and I go back to the USS Blue Ridge, where the general tells me I need to do one more trip to rescue combat Marines and Marine security guards on the roof.”
Berry flew more hours than anyone else that day, making 14 to 16 trips in 18.3 hours and personally evacuating more than 300 people.
He went on to hold numerous command and staff positions in the Marine Corps, including commanding officer of Marine Air Group 36, where he oversaw 60 aircraft and 3,000 Marines supporting fleet operations during Operation Desert Shield. He retired in 1993 from a post at Camp Lejeune.
Since then, Berry’s mission during the fall of Saigon has been the subject of numerous media stories and documentaries. The Lady Ace 09 is at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in California.
Last year, Gerry and Kate Berry were invited to Tampa to attend a reunion of the Marines he rescued on his final trip to the embassy roof. “I had never met them because they were all loaded in the back of the helicopter,” explains Berry, “but they all said, ‘Our moms thank you so much!’”
As for Ambassador Martin, Berry never saw him again. “I always wondered how long he would’ve stayed at the embassy.”
“The interesting thing,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “President Ford could’ve ordered him out. Henry Kissinger, his direct boss, could’ve ordered him out. The general or admiral could’ve encouraged him to get out. Instead, he was ordered out by a roguishly handsome 30-year-old Marine. Somebody had to do it!”