The other day I was engrossed in conversation with a friend about politics (one of my favorite subjects). Our discussions focused on past presidents and their accomplishments and shortcomings. One of the presidents that came to mind was Gerald R. Ford, our 38th president. President Ford was by most accounts a forgotten president known only for unconditionally pardoning his predecessor (by issuing Proclamation 4311), President Richard Nixon, for his Watergate crimes on September 8, 1974. Ford was attempting to heal a broken and angry nation and felt that this was in the best interests of the country.
Ford also inherited the final chapters of the Vietnam war, a war that many felt was a complete military failure costing the precious lives of 58,000 American soldiers. With the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27, 1973, declaring a cease-fire across the North and South Vietnam borders, the war was far from over. The communist North was rapidly advancing and was determined to capture the South and its largest city of Saigon. One of Ford’s first actions was to re-authorize a $522 million aid package for South Vietnam.
But perhaps the greatest legacy that President Ford should be remembered for were his unprecedented humanitarian efforts dealing with the forgotten Vietnamese people who were fearing for their lives under inevitable communist rule. On April 29, 1975, the United States military commenced Operation Frequent Wind, a rescue operation with the mission of airlifting as many American civilians and Vietnamese citizens out of the city of Saigon as possible. The operation required hundreds of fixed wing (airplanes) and rotor wing aircraft (helicopters) along with dozens of ships off the coast of Vietnam.
To this day, Operation Frequent Wind remains the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Over a 24-hour period, more than 7000 people were evacuated from Saigon by helicopter. In addition to Operation Frequent Wind, Operation Babylift airlifted 3,3oo infants and children and Operation New Life airlifted an additional 110,000 refugees out of Vietnam. During Operation Frequent Wind, so many helicopters and airplanes overwhelmed the decks of aircraft carriers, many had to be pushed over the side into the sea to make room for more landing zones. Many helicopters were ordered take off and ditch at sea after unloading passengers.
Overall, all operations were declared a huge success with minimal human casualties and only minor aircraft damage from small arms fire. The only recorded tragedy occurred on April 4, 1975 when a C-5A Galaxy cargo plane carrying 328 passengers and crew crash landed shortly after taking off from Saigon-Tan Son Nhat Airport. 153 passengers, including infants and children, lost their lives in the crash.
The humanitarian efforts of President Gerald R. Ford and his administration spared the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese citizens from the threats of re-education camps (brainwashing), torture, malnutrition, and possible execution from communist forces. This was Ford’s finest moment in history and one for which we should all remember him by.