White Christmas in Black April

SAFE Booklet, Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

It’s Christmas time, and like other folks, my wife and I have set up our tree, strung our lights, and hung our stockings. We listen to Christmas music to get into the spirit, but one song in particular reminds me of something far different than the holiday itself.

Around this time a few years ago, there was a moment when my family was listening to Christmas music and my mother started to sing. Not one to usually sing English songs, it was a surprise to hear her sing along to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” We were curious how she knew that song—and so my brother asked.

She first heard that song on the day she left Vietnam. In the last days of “Black April,” as it was later called, radios all across Saigon played the song “White Christmas” as a secret message to U.S. personnel to evacuate the city.

Code-named “Operation Frequent Wind,” the American Embassy distributed a 15-page booklet called SAFE (Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency) to Americans in preparation for an emergency evacuation. The document included a coded message and a map of assembly areas in Saigon for extraction by helicopter.

SAFE Booklet, Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

On April 29th, 1975, my mom unknowingly heard the evacuation message broadcasted on every radio within earshot:

“The temperature is 105 degrees and rising."
I'm dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know / Where the treetops glisten and children listen / To hear sleigh bells in the snow🎵

While it was a signal for Americans to evacuate, to my mother, it was a song she had never heard before played over and over amidst a crumbling war. Her family was already en route to the coast where they would later escape in a small boat. Today, the song “White Christmas” serves as a soundtrack for that scene, evoking intense feelings of both sorrow and joy as my mother remembers the journey that brought her to the U.S.

Since my mom shared her story, I think of her each time I hear “White Christmas” on the radio. It gives me a chance to reflect on our histories, both American and Vietnamese. That song signaled the end of the war, but also marked the beginning of a new life in America. Having never seen snow in Vietnam, my mother has since shared many a white Christmas with her family, perhaps a bittersweet reminder of something good coming from something tragic.

Do you or your family have a memory or association with this song? We would be honored to hear it - send your stories to stories@refugene.com.