In the early 1970s, as the Western military commitment was drawn down, the process of ‘Vietnamisation’ was gathering pace. This was a US policy to transfer greater combat role responsibilities to South Vietnamese military forces so that US combat troops could be progressively withdrawn from the country. In early 1975, however, North Vietnam launched a determined offensive on the South. By April the outcome was becoming more and more obvious each day.
New Zealand’s combat forces and the Services Medical Team had left South Vietnam in December 1971. New Zealand had sent a military training team in early 1971, joined by a second in early 1972. Both teams departed South Vietnam in mid-December that year.
The Bristol Freighters of No. 41 Squadron bore the brunt of the remaining air support operations. Over the three years to 1975 they provided a lifeline of supply flights in support of the New Zealand Embassy in Saigon and the civilian New Zealand Surgical Team at Qui Nhon. However, because of the close proximity of the North Vietnamese, the Surgical Team was evacuated with urgency in late March 1975. By early April the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had virtually surrounded Saigon.
On 4 April two Bristol Freighters from Singapore-based No. 41 Squadron were sent to South Vietnam ‘for appropriate tasks relating to refugee relief problems’. In reality, all three Freighters (NZ5903*, NZ5904 and NZ5907) were used initially. The detachment became the only RNZAF unit to be deployed to South Vietnam, and was based at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. One of the aircraft remained in South Vietnamese airspace at all times, either at the airport ‘on standby’, or delivering relief supplies. The other two flew backwards and forwards between Saigon and Singapore, evacuating non-essential Embassy staff and important equipment. By 6 April all but essential staff had gone.
No. 40 Squadron had also prepared for the worst, sending a Hercules to Singapore on 8 April. Two flights direct from New Zealand arrived with relief supplies on 7 and 15 April, and three flights were made by the Singapore-based Hercules. Over the next fortnight the situation progressively worsened. For the remaining New Zealand diplomatic staff and associated Vietnamese civilians, the need for evacuation was now very real. From 13 April the No. 41 Squadron detachment was reduced to a single Freighter which was based at Tan Son Nhut airport, awaiting the Ambassador’s decision to evacuate all remaining staff. Flights in and out of Saigon were operated on an ‘as required’ basis by the other two Freighters from their Singapore base.
As each day passed in April, the North Vietnamese troops got closer and closer to the airport, until they were within artillery range. The time had come to leave. On the morning of 21 April 1975, New Zealand Ambassador Norman Farrell, Embassy staff and Vietnamese civilians were driven to Tan Son Nhut, where they boarded Bristol Freighter NZ5907. Its windows had been blacked out so that the undocumented Vietnamese on-board would not be spotted by authorities. Later that day the aircraft left Saigon for the last time, and New Zealand’s role in the Vietnam War on the ground and in the air was over.
* – Bristol Freighter NZ5903 is part of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand’s aircraft collection.