Monday, March 15, 2010

It's 105 Degrees and Rising

There has been much written about the Vietnam War. But we write about radio here so I must narrow my focus to a 3 minute and 6 second moment in the history of the war. It marked the fall of Saigon, it's capture by the North Vietnamese. This was prudently preceded by the evacuation of the American embassy. In some ways it was the last three minutes and six seconds of the war except that by all reports they played the song on repeat to make sure the signal was heard by all.

To prepare for this impending evacuation, the American embassy distributed a 15-page booklet called Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency. The booklet included a map of Saigon which indicated rally points for helicopter pick up. There was an insert page which read: "Note evacuational signal. Do not disclose to other personnel. When the evacuation is ordered, the code will be read out on Armed Forces Radio (AFVN). The code is: The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising. This will be followed by the playing of I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." The version they selected was sung by Bing Crosby. After the signal was given buses began to bring evacuees to the pick up points. It was called Operation Frequent Wind.

Radio was everywhere. There were radios in the PX, radios in the barracks radios in the offices for the REMF. It was the fastest and most certain way to convey a message to everyone simultaneously. On April 29th, 1975 At 10:51 AM Henry Kissenger gave the order and the signal was broadcast on AFVN. It's important to note that between 1973 and 1975, the station was operated by civilians at Federal Electric, a subsidiary of ITT. (Thank you N4UF)

Interestingly, Bing Crosby was privately opposed to the Vietnam War. Whether the administrator who made the pick knew that I don't know but I love the irony. In 2002, the Library of Congress selected the 1942 version to add to the National Recording Registry.

I was contacted by N4UF, an AFVN staffer with a slightly different version of events. But This version, despite contradicting popular sources comes from the most authoritative source possible: The last DJ: Chuck Neil. I'm quoting:
"We had a big Gates Automatic Programmer. We programmed most of our day on that machine. And I went back in there and took the cartridge with "105 degrees and rising" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," and popped it in the slot and punched it up. And that was my final act at the radio station...."
Basically this means that Frank Snepp's account in "Decent Interval"was incorrect. AFVN did not air the Bing Crosby version. In an article by Chuck himself in the Library of Congress he states that he couldn't find Bing Crosby's version in the record library and substituted the Tennessee Ernie Ford version. Every other writer who used Snepp as a source passed on the error into history until in 2002 the National Recording Registry archived the wrong version of the song.


  1. I knew that AFRN was used to alert for the evacuation, but I didn't know the 112 degrees and rising part. Great story.

  2. Some sources actually say the phrase was 105 degrees and rising... others say 112 degrees. I found the 112 degree phrase more credible.

  3. NOTE: I think history is done a disservice for failing to record the name of the DJ who uttered the phrase. Kissenger gave the order but whether it was live or from tape one man recorded the final message.

  4. According to Chuck Neil in his essay "I'm Dreaming of A White Christmas," Tennessee Ernie Ford's version was used.

    Neal said that Frank Snepp was wrong in his account in "Decent Interval" about the Bing Crosby reference.

    Chuck said he couldn't find Bing Crosby's version in the record library.

    Also, the code used was "105 degrees and rising."

    AFVN (American Forces Vietnam Network), the Vietnam branch of American Forces Radio, changed its title to American Service Radio in early 1973. The American Forces designation was dropped after US military, including the AFVN staff, left.

    From 1973 until 1975, the station was operated by civilians (Federal Electric, a subsidiary of ITT).

    Neil also says he was the one who prepared the tape with the evacuation sequence. The station ran on "automatic pilot" for many hours after the staff headed to Tan Son Nhut for evacuation from Saigon.

  5. Tennessee Ernie Ford's version came out in 1949, so it's possible that it was that platter. The Chuck Neil version of events disagrees with other every version I've read. But of course if Chuck was the last man in the DJ booth his version is above reproach.

    Good catch on AFVN. I keep using AFRS because it's the contemporary acronym, and ties together all the pieces I've written relating to them. It makes searching easier even though it is less accurate.

  6. I left AFVN a few months before Chuck says he arrived. I never met him but his account of the station set-up and other details in his writing correspond with what I remember.

    His essay was in a volume of works about the media. I ran across it at the Library of Congress in 1984.

    I made a photocopy of the article but unfortunately not the title page or other information about the book it was in.

    He says "We had a big Gates Automatic Programmer. We programmed most of our day on that machine. And I went back in there and took the cartridge with "105 degrees and rising" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," and popped it in the slot and punched it up. And that was my final act at the radio station...."

    His name is spelled Neil (I wrote Neal once earlier) and the station was called the American Radio Service while operated by the civilians.

  7. If you can share a scan of your photocopy I'll post it here. This post just became the authoritative online source; contradicting Wikipedia.

  8. I'll try to dig it out, Jose. Not set up for scan now but may be able to get one. Runs nine pages. If not, I can send you a hard copy by postal mail.

    Excerpts of it are posted via about 1/2 way down the page.

    Maybe Snepp was technically correct and the original plan was to use Crosby but it was T.E Ford's version which was aired when Neil couldn't find Crosby's record.

    In "Decent Interval," Snepp specifies Bing Crosby but later (page 490 in my paper edition) he states:

    "Within the next half hour American Service Radio in Saigon spun an old familiar ballad--I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."

    He doesn't mention the artist in the later reference.

  9. This is fascinating. Snepp certainly implied Bing, and others have at least interpreted it that way. Lets correct history while we can. If you cant scan I'll happily take a xerox and post myself.

    Once that's up we can correct Wikipedia. Then hope the world follows.

  10. The copy that I have is over 25 years old and not of very good quality. I'll see what can be done to improve. Another photocopy may come out better than a scan.

    I mistyped the link I posted earlier. Should be for the abridged version.

    Yes, this must qualify as Arcane Radio Trivia :)

  11. I have scans of the five pages of Chuck Neil's account that detail the final days of the American Radio Service. The other four pages deal with his adventures during the evacuation.

    I can try to send these five pages to you by e-mail.

    Appears now that I found these in the early 1990s. I am following some leads to get the title of the book in which this was published and should know something in a week or two.

  12. Anonymous4:16 PM

    I wonder if there is a recording available of this last message. It'd be great to hear it

  13. Need your help for research for what time on 29/30 April 1975 did ARS Saigon sign-off?
    What time did "the temperature is 105 degrees and rising and I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" stop broadcasting?


    John Malch
    In-country 1968 - April 1975