Waves of U.S. helicopters airlifted Americans from wartorn Cambodia to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Siam today before the expected fall of Phnom Penh to Communist-led insurgents.
Three dozen Air Force and Marine helicopters flew 289 persons, a third of them Americans, to the carrier Okinawa circling off the Cambodian coast.
The choppers, guarded by a 346-man Marine battalion and a squadron of 20 warplanes, also flew out 159 Cambodians, including Acting President Sau Kham Khoy.
The dramatic, mid-morning airlift in the midst of rebel shelling climaxed the collapse of a massive, five-year U.S. effort to keep the Khmer Rouge from taking power in Cambodia.
The military situation around the war- torn Cambodian capital was deteriorating hourly and the fall of Phnom Penh appeared imminent.
A UPI Cambodian correspondent, filing from Phnom Penh after the evacuation, said rebel gunners hit the landing area with rockets during the pullout, killing one Cambodian civilian and wounding another.
The correspondent reported that Radio Phnom Penh said Prime Minister Long Boret met with his advisers after the evacuation and decided to form a "revolutionary committee" to rule the country.
There was no immediate indication exactly what the committee will do or who will serve on it.
The capital was calm as dusk fell. Much of the population was unaware of the American departure.
The State Department had vowed to use force if needed "to protect the lives of evacuees," but the Pentagon said the withdrawal took place without any American shots fired.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia John Gunther Dean arrived today at the U.S. air base at U Tapao, 100 miles southeast of Bangkok, with a dozen members of the embassy staff.
Dean carried the U.S. Embassy and Cambodian flags as he stepped from a "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter. He was greeted by his wife and Air Force Lt. Gen. John J. Burnes.
U.S. officials said the rest of the evacuees, including 82 Americans and 159 Cambodians, would travel on the carrier to the Thai port of Sattahip near U Tapao.
They said the ship also carried evacuated Frenchmen, Thais, Taiwanese, Spaniards, Filipinos and Australians. It was expected to reach the port on Sunday morning.
U.S. officials in Thailand said 36 American helicopters, guarded by warplanes and Marines, flew the evacuees from the U.S. Embassy compound in Phnom Penh in a hurried operation code- named Eagle Pull.
All airplane flights to Phnom Penh were halted late Friday, ending the U.S. supply airlift to the Cambodian capital, apparently forever.
The end of the American presence came suddenly.
American diplomats, relief workers and reporters as well as third-country nationals and Cambodians closely identified with the United States gathered this morning at the U.S. Embassy compound at the western side of Phnom Penh.
The airlift began shortly afterward.
Combat-ready U.S. Marines flew into Phnom Penh aboard twin-rotor CH46 Sea Knight helicopters being used for the evacuation, ready to fight any attempt to halt the exodus.
U.S. jet fighter-bombers circled Phnom Penh in case they were needed in a tactical role in support of the Marines.
Fighting continued all along the Phnom Penh defense perimeter with most government troops unaware of the American evacuation.
President Ford, in a statement issued after midnight Friday, said he ordered the evacuation "with a heavy heart" because of "the seriously deteriorating military situation" in Cambodia.
Ford expressed regret that Congress failed to "provide the assistance necessary to the survival of the government of the Khmer Republic."