On the afternoon of 11 April 1975, the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit received orders to execute an operation had been in planning since 1973, codenamed “Eagle Pull”.
The plan was to evacuate all Americans from Phnom Penh, along with other nationals and selected officials of the Khmer Republic. Less than a month before the operation was put into place, the estimated number of evacuees was put at 3,600, far exceeding the 400 originally planned for.
A new objective was set for marines to secure Ponchentong airport, which was already the target of Khmer Rouge attacks.
This plan was quickly scrapped after BirdAir C-130s offloading supplies at Ponchentong were used to carry evacuees on the return journey to Thailand.
Amphibious Ready Group Alpha (Task Group 76.4), and the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (Task Group 79.4) arrived off the coast of Kampong Som on 3 March 1975 to await orders.
The force comprised of:
Task Group 76.4 (Movement Transport Group Alpha)
- USS Okinawa carrying Heavy Marine Helicopter Unit 462
- USS Vancouver
- USS Thomaston
Escort ships for naval gunfire, escort, and area defense:
- USS Edson
- USS Henry B. Wilson
- USS Knox
- USS Kirk
06:00 on 12 April, 1975: 12 CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters took off from from the deck of USS Okinawa, picking up more marines from USS Vancouver, giving a total ground security force of 360 Marines. As the helicopters completed loading they formed into groups of three and circled the task force.
07:30: US Ambassador John Gunther Dean notified the acting Cambodian Chief of State, Prime Minister Long Boret and other Cambodian leaders including Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, that the US personnel would officially leave the country within the next few hours. asked if any desired evacuation, in which case they should be at the embassy by 09:30. All declined except for Saukham Khoy, successor to Lon Nol as President of the Khmer Republic, who left without telling his fellow leaders.
Prince Sirik Matak, a former Prime Minister, cousin to the deposed Sihanouk, and one of the main forces behind the coup which established the Khmer Republic, rejected the offer and wrote the following letter to Ambassador Dean. He was among the first to be executed by the Khmer Rouge.
A ten-man command group proceeded in vehicles to the pick-up point, codenamed LZ Hotel, a soccer field, to the northeast of the embassy compound, blocking access from all areas of the city other than the road from the Embassy to the LZ.
Once the route was secured, the command group then made contact with ‘King Bird’, an orbiting HC-130 plane of the 56th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, that began to control the flow of the helicopters.
07:43: The first group of helicopters crossed the Cambodian coastline and after about one hour of flight over 160 km of hostile territory, the initial wave set down on LZ Hotel.
Marines quickly established a defensive perimeter and began moving back crowds the evacuee groups to the waiting CH-53 helicopters.
LZ Hotel could only hold three CH-53s at any time, so flights arriving after the initial build-up had to be held at Point Oscar, some 50 km south of Phnom Penh until called in by “King Bird”.
09:45: The US Embassy closed. There would be no diplomatic relations between the US and Cambodia again until 11 November 1991.
10:41: All the evacuees including Ambassador Dean and President Saukham Khoy had been lifted out by helicopters of HMH-462. Helicopters of HMH-463 operating from USS Hancock then began to land to extract the ground security force.
10:50: 107 mm rocket fire began hitting the vicinity of LZ Hotel. Less than 10 minutes later the area came under 82 mm mortar fire. Controllers in the zone notified the Air Force forward air controllers (FACs) flying overhead in 23d Tactical Air Support Squadron OV-10 Broncos observation aircraft. The FACs made low passes over the east bank of the Mekong, but could not spot any fire coming from known enemy positions in that location.
10:59: The last troops of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines left the zone.
Captain Melton, the Company G commander, recalled the extraction of his ground security forces: “I had passed the word to my company to pull in the perimeter; that we were leaving. I expected no problems, but there was a lot of noise from the helicopters. As Company G began embarking I saw Lieutenant Colonel Slade near the last helicopter. He motioned to me and I ran over to him. He asked me how things were going and I said fine. He nodded his approval and said I should get back to my company and make sure that I had everybody. I ran to the one remaining helicopter to be loaded and stood at the tailgate and watched the platoon sergeant count his people on board. I stood in dismay as the sergeant’s eyes grew wide in disbelief and horror. He turned toward me and indicated by mouthing his words and using two fingers that he was missing two Marines. I motioned to the platoon commander and the platoon sergeant to follow me. We ran around the long building on the edge of the soccer field (the LZ) to the entrance gate the platoon had been guarding. We saw two Marines standing in their original positions, almost catatonic. They probably had not moved since being first posted there and they had not heard the order to move out. I ran up to one and slapped him on the shoulder and yelled at them that we were leaving. When they both turned around and saw that the sector was completely void of Marines, their faces whitened in shock and dismay and they then turned and sprinted full speed to the waiting helicopter.“
11:15: Two USAF HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giants, from the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron landed as scheduled, and extracted the Eagle Pull command units. Small arms fire during the final extraction caused minimal damage to the first helicopter, but a 12.7 mm machine gun round hit the second’s tail rotor as it climbed out of the zone. The damaged helicopter managed to safely reach Ubon Air Base in Thailand.
12:15: The last marine helicopter landed on USS Okinawa.
14:50: An HMH-462 CH-53 took Ambassador Dean off USS Okinawa to U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand.
On 13 April, the evacuees were flown to U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand on HMH-462 helicopters and Amphibious Ready Group Alpha proceeded to the South China Sea to rendezvous with Task Force 76 as it stood by to implement Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon.
The operation was deemed a success, with no loss of life, although is came as a bitter blow for the Cambodian people as Phnom Penh fell five days later. It also gave valuable experience for the the withdrawal from Saigon 17 days later. The naval craft left to join Task Force 76 off Vũng Tàu to assist in Operation Frequent Wind.
The evacuation also haunted Ambassador John Gunther Dean for the rest of his life. Dean was a Jewish-German evacuee who arrived in the USA in 1939. He served as the United States ambassador to five nations under four presidents and died in 2019, aged 93.
“We’d accepted responsibility for Cambodia and then walked out without fulfilling our promise,” Dean said in a 2015 interview to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. “That’s the worst thing a country can do. And I cried because I knew what was going to happen.”
“I failed,” he told The Associated Press in the 2015 interview, at his home in Paris, where he had retired. “I tried so hard. I took as many people as I could, hundreds of them, I took them out, but I couldn’t take the whole nation out.“
Submitted by History Steve for CNE
Sources: “The Bitter End” George R Durham, US Navy archives, Associated Press