The Last 48 Hours of the Vietnam War in Photos

2 minute read

On April 28, 1975, Saigon was under curfew as North Vietnamese forces drew near. The capital city that for years had evaded attack was now characterized, TIME reported, by “a strange blend of serenity and fear.” Some streets were clogged with a cavalry of bicycles, pedicabs and trucks heading for anywhere but where they were. In other corners, life went on as though it weren’t about to change irrevocably.

The following day, helicopters began airlifting evacuees as Americans and South Vietnamese clamored for spots. Some residents holed up in their homes and waited while others desperately sought a way out, whether by air, by sea or by the benevolence of strangers. One 18-year-old girl placed a classified ad in the Saigon Post, seeking “adoption by or marriage with foreigner of American, French, British, German or other nationality.”

At 10:24 on the morning of April 30, Duong Van Minh, president for all of two days, announced the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam. At midday, tanks stormed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, where Minh waited to cede what power he had left, and a war that had raged for two decades was over.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

A CIA employee helps Vietnamese evacuees onto an Air America helicopter from the top of 22 Gia Long Street, a half mile from the U.S. Embassy.Corbis
Helicopter-transported U.S. Marines running, arriving at Tan Son Nhut air base to secure area around Defense Attaché Office compound for evacuation of the last Americans in Saigon.Dirck Halstead—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Mobs of South Vietnamese civilians scale the 14-foot wall of the U.S. Embassy trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam.AP
Civilians waiting in front of the U.S. Embassy.Getty Images
Citizens scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, trying to get to the helicopter pickup zone.Neal Ulevich—AP
U.S. Marines' helicopter evacuation.Frances Starner—AP
The last U.S. citizens, including some journalists, gathered to leave the city by noon.Getty Images
Right after the U.S. Embassy security guards were evacuated, South Vietnamese civilians moved into the embassy and began looting. Even though a 24-hour curfew had been imposed on the city, the streets were filled with people carrying off all they could steal.Nguyen Khao—Bettmann/Corbis
Vietnamese women clutch boxes of food looted from U.S. installation after the evacuation of Saigon.AP
A crippled South Vietnamese war veteran limps away on crutch with food looted from abandoned U.S. installations after the evacuation of Saigon.AP
U.S. Marines hit the deck of the USS Blue Ridge to dodge flying metal from a South Vietnamese helicopter that crashed on the deck of the ship. One pilot had dropped his helicopter on the blade of another, and chunks of metal ripped through the air. The top helicopter, with its load of women and children, nearly toppled into the sea, but they were rescued without injury.AP
U.S. Navy personnel aboard the USS Blue Ridge push a helicopter into the sea off the coast of Vietnam in order to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon. The helicopter had carried Vietnamese fleeing Saigon as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the capital.AP
U.S. Marine helicopter crewmen carry Vietnamese civilians to safety aboard the USS Blue Ridge, after their evacuation helicopter crashed on the deck of the amphibious command ship.AP
A weeping South Vietnamese mother and her three children are plucked out of Saigon by U.S. Marine helicopters in Vietnam.AP
The last Vietnamese evacuees by boat from Saigon waterfront, as troops close in.Matt Franjola—AP
North Vietnamese tanks cross Saigon on the way to Độc Lập Palace.Getty Images
A North Vietnamese tank rolls through the gate of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, signifying the fall of South Vietnam.AP

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com