Conclusion: The Final Withdrawal (Jun 1973)

The cease-fire in South and North Vietnam was signed on 27 January 1973 thereby heralding an end to US involvement in the war in Southeast Asia.  The last US air strikes in South Vietnam were flown the following day.  The long civil war in Laos theoretically came to end on 21 February when a cease-fire was signed ending US air operations over that country.  However, the bombing of North Vietnamese positions in Laos resumed briefly after the NVA captured a town in the Plain of Jars. The last PACAF aircraft left South Vietnam on 28 March although the USAF still maintained a formidable presence in Thailand and at sea.  On 16 June the US lost its last fixed-wing aircraft on operations in Southeast Asia, an F-4E and an F-111A.  The last combat mission of the war was flown by two A-7Ds of the 354th TFW on 15 August.  Official US figures for the war between October 1961 and March 1973 reveal that a total of 2,257 fixed-wing aircraft were lost while flying a total of 5,226,701 sorties.  This represents an average loss rate of just 0.04 per cent although particular types of aircraft in certain roles suffered much higher loss rates than the average.  Even so, compared to the aircraft loss rate for the Korean War of 2 per cent and the Second World War of 9.7 per cent, the air war in Southeast Asia was much less costly in terms of men and machines.  The development of the SAR role also did much to reduce the level of personnel losses during the war while technological developments, particularly in the field of electronic warfare, also led to reduced losses.

The plight of the POWs at last came to an end early in 1973 as Operation Homecoming was mounted to fly the men from Hanoi to Clark AFB in the Philippines.  The longest-serving POWs had spent nine long years incarcerated in North Vietnam while those shot down during Linebacker II had spent less than three months.  It is a well-known fact that fewer men were released than was expected, but the fate of many of those who still remain missing will probably remain a mystery forever, despite strenuous efforts by US government agencies to account for all Americans missing in Southeast Asia.

The last US troops left South Vietnam on 29 March 1973 leaving behind just a handful of men assigned to the office of the defence attaché in Saigon.  The US handed over hundreds of aircraft and thousands of tons of other military equipment to the South Vietnamese and left them to continue to fight the war against the North.

Gradually US forces withdrew from the rest of Southeast Asia and the air bases began to shut down with the first major base at Takhli being closed on 12 September 1974.  However, the hijacking of the US merchant vessel SS Mayaguez by Cambodian troops in international waters in May 1975 saw a minor action that culminated in a disastrous attempt to land troops on the island of Koh Tang.  The ship and its crew were recovered on 15 May but the US forces sustained a number of casualties and lost five CH-53s of the 21st SOS.

The fighting in Vietnam abated for a while after the cease-fire but continued on and off for another two years until North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops finally stormed Saigon itself in April 1975.  Helicopters from the USMC and Air America evacuated the last Americans from the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon on 29 April in Operation Frequent Wind.  During the same month the US mounted Operation Eagle Pull to evacuate foreign nationals from Phnom Penh as Cambodia eventually fell, thereby starting that country’s tragic period of rule by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

Following the end of South Vietnam, American forces continued the withdrawal from Southeast Asia.  The last B-52 left U-Tapao on 8 June 1975 while Ubon was handed over to the Royal Thai Air Force on 26 June.  The A-7Ds of the 3rd TFS left Korat on 15 December with the F-4s of the 432nd TRW leaving Udorn five days later.  The last operational US aircraft to leave Southeast Asia were several KC-135s that departed U-Tapao on 22 December 1975, thereby bringing to an end one of the most turbulent chapters in American history.

© Chris Hobson and David Lovelady. All rights reserved.