USS Midway Played Significant Role in Vietnam War
Thursday, April 29, 2010
What role did the USS Midway play in the evacuation of U.S. and Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War? We speak to local historians about Operation Frequent Wind, the end of the Vietnam War, and other historical events that the USS Midway took part in.
Special Feature Live from USS Midway: Behind the Scenes
These Days broadcast live from the flight deck of the USS Midway on April 29, 2010, and posted photos during the show on Flickr.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And good morning from San Diego Bay. We're broadcasting live today from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. It’s a brisk, it’s a really beautiful morning, mostly sunny. We’ve got a southern view of the Bay toward Coronado Bridge. And you might hear the Midway’s message flags. They’re snapping right above us in the breeze. In fact, we’ve got a 21 mile an hour wind happening on the flight deck here on the USS Midway Museum. Right across, at North Island Naval Base, all the three of the San Diego active aircraft carriers are in homeport here in San Diego. Now today, we are onboard the Midway Museum to mark a significant milestone. Tomorrow is the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the last United States military operation of the Vietnam war. On April 30th, 1975, the USS Midway took on board 3,000 people evacuated from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army advanced to capture the capitol city. The fall of Saigon marked the end of the Vietnam war, which was perhaps the most controversial war in United States history. But for the men onboard the Midway 35 years ago, there was no controversy only the desire to take on board as many Vietnamese as they safely could. The people desperate to leave Saigon arrived in American military helicopters, also on Vietnamese helicopters, and in one instance, a family escaping in a small private plane all landed safely on the USS Midway. This morning, we'll hear from the people who commanded that operation, hear the stories of the people who left Vietnam that day, some of them never to return and to begin life in a new country. I’d like to welcome my guests, although my first guest is really welcoming us aboard the USS Midway Museum today. Scott McGaugh is author of "Midway Magic," and "Midway Memories," and marketing director for the USS Midway Museum. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT MCGAUGH (Marketing Director, USS Midway Museum): Good morning, Maureen. Welcome aboard.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much. Abe Shragge is professor of history who teaches a class on War and American Society at UC San Diego. It’s good to see you, Abe.
ABE SHRAGGE (Professor of History, University of California San Diego): Thank you, Maureen. Thanks for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Scott, here we are, beautiful morning in San Diego Bay on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. Can you, with your knowledge of the history of this ship, take us back in time to the flight deck of the USS Midway on April 30th, 1975?
MCGAUGH: Absolutely. You know, it was a very different kind of a feel on this flight deck 35 years ago tomorrow. Midway was not very far off the coast of Vietnam, not far from Saigon. It was an overcast, humid, rainy day. This flight deck was filled with tension. Men had been training for several weeks, hundreds of men, for what was going to be an unparalleled, unprecedented rescue mission. The officers high up in the bridge and Primary Flight Control and elsewhere were relying on those men for when the signal came. They knew that they had a good plan. They knew that there would be changes in that plan throughout the course of the operation. They knew that they were working with Air Force helicopter crews for the first time ever. So it was something that they had trained for but certainly not something that they had prepared for through the course of their careers but it was up to them to fulfill the mission when the call came.
CAVANAUGH: Now as the day progressed, what did the flight deck look like. Was it crowded with aircraft, with helicopters, with people?
MCGAUGH: Absolutely. The first day was pretty well controlled. That was the planned day in terms of Americans getting out, many Vietnamese refugees coming out with them who had worked with them. Those were primarily American helicopters, so they had radio communications. Things went well. They landed. Sailors got the refugees out of the helicopters quickly, across the flight deck, down below for medical care, food, anything they might need. Get those other helicopters back up in the air, back to Saigon, because there were more coming in. The second day got a lot more chaotic.
CAVANAUGH: Now later in the program we’re going to be talking with the captain of the ship on that day and the air boss for the flight deck. I’m wondering, though, while all this was going on on the USS Midway, this sometimes controlled chaos and a lot of desperation, a lot of people back home were also looking at and experiencing this day 35 years ago so I wonder, Abe, what kind of memories do people have from that day?
SHRAGGE: Well, it was a very tense and anxious day, as you point out. The news media had covered this extensively. There was a lot of fear within the American public that reprisals and retaliations would occur on the ground in and around Saigon, a lot of fear for the safety of the Americans and concern for the refugees as well.
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, you’ve talked to pilots and crew members who participated in the evacuation of Saigon, what did they tell you it was like?
MCGAUGH: The word that comes to mind is bittersweet. Many of them had been on deployments earlier or assignments in Vietnam from a combat standpoint. They had fought a war, sometimes two and three and four deployments, tours of duty, and here it came time to basically quit, to rescue who they could, make the most of a horrible situation. When I talk with them today, they’re proud of what they accomplished on April 30th, 1975, but many times they’re somewhat bitter, if you will, in terms that it came to that after losing so many American lives and God knows how many Vietnamese lives in the decade that led up to it.
CAVANAUGH: When those pilots arrived on this ship, their human cargo, the passengers that they had came onboard safely and they had arrived somewhere. But when they took off from Saigon, there was a lot of chaos and a lot of heartbreak. Have you spoken with pilots who have those memories as well?
MCGAUGH: Absolutely. Several of them have talked with me on a number of occasions and to see hundreds of women and children, primarily, waiting to get onto a helicopter that might hold 20 or 30, making the hard decision to lift off when, in fact, they knew that they may not be able to get back and get them all out, it was a day of, I think, heartbreaking, heart wrenching decisions, not just by the crews but by the families who were deciding which children might have a chance to flee for freedom to America and which ones might have to stay back. It was a horrible day.
CAVANAUGH: We are broadcasting live from the USS Midway Museum. My guests are Scott McGaugh. He is the marketing director for the USS Midway Museum. And Abe Shragge, professor of history. He teaches a class on War and American Society at UC San Diego. And tell us, Abe, remind us, what was it that people were so concerned about with the North Vietnamese advancing to the city of Saigon. Why did so many people – why were they so desperate to get out of that city.
SHRAGGE: Well, first of all the North Vietnamese advance had gone very quickly. This turned out to be the largest offensive operation in 20 years. And, in fact, the North Vietnamese themselves did not expect to be so successful or that this would pass as quickly as it did. There was concern on the ground among the Americans that the Vietnamese friendly to the American effort might turn on them at the very end in order to save their own skins. And not that there’s a record of that happening, nevertheless there was concern and fear that that would. The number of Americans to be taken out was quite large. The number of Vietnamese who wanted to get out was very large as well, and the logistics of accomplishing that over just a couple of days was enormous.
CAVANAUGH: And were people afraid that they were going to be killed, literally, if they were left behind in Saigon?
SHRAGGE: There was a great deal of fear about that. There was also fear of the unknown. They didn’t know where they were going. It was against United States law at that time to take Vietnamese directly to the United States. Many of them ended up, therefore, in the Philippines and just a lot of not knowing what was going to happen next, a lot of fear.
CAVANAUGH: What do we know about what happened to the people who were not able to participate in this airlift and land here on the Midway?
SHRAGGE: Well, many of them were arrested, many of them were taken to reeducation camps. Many of them had a hard time for years to come, really did not successfully overcome the end of the war.
CAVANAUGH: We will be speaking with a woman who had an experience like that in the second hour of These Days this morning and who now lives here in San Diego. What do we know about the evacuees, the refugees who were evacuated that day? I assume many of them became US citizens. Do they live here now?
SHRAGGE: There are quite a few in San Diego and around Southern California. There are a number of other places around the United States where groups of them moved and built new lives for themselves and became very active members of the American community.
CAVANAUGH: And I think it’s only fair to point out that as this day is commemorated here on the USS Midway and as we talk about the fall of Saigon, there are many places around the world, in fact many people in this country, who look at this day in a different light.
SHRAGGE: Indeed. We call this day – we commemorate this day in honor of the fall of Saigon. There are those who would say this is the day that Saigon was liberated. The North Vietnamese had been working for the unification of the country for a long time and this was a golden moment to them. They were not sure how easy it would be to accomplish this once the United States had wound down its military operations after the Peace Accords were signed in ’73. In fact, the North Vietnamese thought the operation might go on for another year or so after 1975. But they were very grateful that they were able to conclude the operation as quickly and as easily as they did.
CAVANAUGH: We are broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum in San Diego Bay. And I am here with Scott McGaugh. He is director of the USS Midway Museum, marketing director of the USS Midway Museum. Abe Shragge is professor of history at UC San Diego. Scott, as you’re thinking about the way that things were 35 years ago, I’m wondering, does it occur to you that when you explore the bittersweet aspect of this, does that in any way take away from the heroism that happened here on this flight deck 35 years ago?
MCGAUGH: Oh, I think it adds to the heroism. I think it adds to the legacy. You know, the legacy of the USS Midway and those who serve in uniform aren’t necessarily the operations or the missions that they complete but it’s the young men and women who make that possible. You know, the average age of sailors on Midway that day was 19. They were a year and a half out of high school on average. They were being told to do something and ordered to do something and training to do something that they really hadn’t—I’m sure at the age of 19—didn’t have a great macro view of and yet they were willing to do what it took to make sure that they could save as many refugees, strangers to them all, as possible in a very extraordinary 30 hours, straight through the night, operation. So, yes, it’s bittersweet, probably more for the more senior officers, the veterans who had served in Vietnam earlier but, certainly, by 1975, the way crews turn over on ships, for probably the majority of the crew on this ship, this was their first deployment to Vietnam for many of them. They were over there to do a job and their job that day was to save as many lives as possible.
CAVANAUGH: I want you both, if I can ask you both, Scott and Abe, to talk a little bit about the images that have stayed with us from that day. And, Abe, you want to begin?
SHRAGGE: Well, two of the most haunting images that come to mind, one is the last helicopter out of the American embassy in Saigon put their refugees lined up on a ladder. The helicopter’s on the top of the building and the last person in the helicopter is pushing people away so they can get the helicopter off the ground and into the air. And that’s something that’s burned on the memories of, I’m sure, millions of people around the world. Another chilling image that’s not necessarily as well known is pushing helicopters off the deck of ships like the Midway, the Blue Ridge. One more that comes to mind related to that is a pilot jumping out of a helicopter about 40 feet above the water so that he could get out of the way and then get rescued, but there was no room on the deck for these helicopters to park so that’s what they had to do.
CAVANAUGH: And Scott.
MCGAUGH: For me, actually, Maureen, it’s been images that I’ve seen since 1975 and those are the images of the women and children on this very flight deck. You know, when they left home on April 30th, 1975, they left family members behind, fathers sometimes, grandfathers, grandparents, extended families. They left businesses behind. They left family heirlooms behind. They arrived with a purse, a suitcase, maybe a backpack, and that was it. You look at the photos of young American sailors leading them across the flight deck, the images of shock, fear, uncertainty, trust, vulnerability are just overwhelming. I can’t imagine, as a father, making a decision to send half my family on a helicopter and remain behind, and yet thousands of families had to make that very decision that day and the ramifications of that are certainly washed across the faces of those refugees aboard the USS Midway.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that they can go to KPBS.org to see pictures, video, and get more stories about Operation Frequent Wind and the fall of Saigon. As I’ve been saying that, we’re broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum this morning and we are commemorating the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind that saved 3,000 Vietnamese refugees who landed on this ship. Scott, you know, as we commemorate this significant event, it’s not the only historic event that the Midway participated in. I wonder if you could tell us some of the other things because this is a museum now, people come here every single day to see and experience the history of this remarkable ship.
MCGAUGH: Yes, and it really is a remarkable ship. It was the longest serving carrier of the 20th century, 47 years, from the end of World War II all the way through the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Nearly 200,000 sailors served aboard Midway in almost every international crisis. But it was, in fact, a pioneer not just with humanitarian missions. In 1946, it was the first carrier to sail extensively in the subarctic during the winter to teach the Navy how to fly among the icebergs because World War II had been a warm water war. In 1947, it was the only ship ever to launch a captured German B-2 rocket successfully. That ultimately became the dawn of naval missile warfare. In the early 1960s, it tested some of the autopilot technology that later became part of the space shuttle program. So it has served in a variety of capacities, less than 10% of its life in combat. Its primary role, like most carriers historically, is one of deterrence. So it’s not just about combat and the business end of the bow, if you will, but many, many other missions, many, many other accomplishments that really have far-ranging ramifications throughout our society.
CAVANAUGH: Now at one time the USS Midway was the largest ship in the world, right?
MCGAUGH: Yes, when it was commissioned in 1945, in September, it was an engineering marvel. It was about 30% larger than any warship carrier the world had ever seen. A thousand feet long, 258 feet wide when it added the angle deck, the first Navy ship too large for the Panama Canal. Imagine, 50,000 tons, 2,000 rooms, make it float and make it go fast enough that a sailor could have water-skied behind Midway.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now you told us earlier that we have a 21 mile an hour wind going on. I think it’s actually picking up…
MCGAUGH: I think so.
CAVANAUGH: …as we’re talking. I’m – But you told me a very interesting thing about the fact that there had to be a good, stiff wind on the flight deck. That’s what the carrier needed in order to – for the aircraft to take off, is that right?
MCGAUGH: And for Flight Operations…
MCGAUGH: …absolutely. Captain Chambers and Air Boss Jumper would make sure that when Flight Operations came with fixed wing, not helicopter…
MCGAUGH: …they would make 30 knots across the deck. So if there was a 15 knot wind, Captain Chambers would order the ship turned into the wind at a speed of roughly 15 knots to make 30 knots. So the young sailors you see even today on a flight deck launching aircraft, they’re standing in, typically, 30 knot winds on sometimes a pitching deck, five, six, eight, ten hours at a time. They don’t have couches and coffee pots to go to like we do in our offices. Their shift is a lot tougher in 30 knot winds.
CAVANAUGH: And they don’t have these railings up here that we have.
MCGAUGH: No, no, no. The fences you see on Midway is to accommodate our guests. They were not here when Midway was at sea.
CAVANAUGH: You just take a wrong step and you are not on the ship anymore.
MCGAUGH: In about two and a half seconds, you’ll hit the water 50 feet down.
CAVANAUGH: Not good. Tell us, Scott, what was daily life like on this ship. I mean, in order – how many people served on board at any one time?
MCGAUGH: The crew was about 4500. It was a floating city at sea. People are surprised to learn that less than 5% of that 4500 were pilots. Everyone else had city-like jobs so that at the end of the day those pilots could get into the air. There was a radio station, TV station, hospital, dental, water, power, sewer, cobblers, bakers, butchers, dry cleaning, laundry, funeral services, churches, services and so on. So, really, Midway was a series of neighborhoods, of young men answering to their Chief Petty Officers who, in turn, answered to department heads. They rarely saw the captain except on the TV station typically. So it was a floating city at sea, each man working in a very specific area in the trust, in the belief, that he was contributing to a greater whole, the greater good, the overall mission.
CAVANAUGH: And this ship was in – commissioned ’46 to ’92, is that right?
MCGAUGH: Yes, 1945.
MCGAUGH: It missed the war by one week.
MCGAUGH: And was decommissioned here in San Diego on April 11th, 1992.
CAVANAUGH: Now you say 200,000 crew members…
MCGAUGH: About, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. In the history of its active duty.
MCGAUGH: That’s right. Average age: 19.
CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. Now how did it come here? Tell us the story of how the Midway is here in San Diego Bay as a museum.
MCGAUGH: Well, shortly after 1992’s decommissioning, a visionary entrepreneur, Alan Uke, came up with the idea of, you know, Midway – San Diego needs a museum, a tribute, a memorial. We are congressionally designated the birthplace of naval aviation, whose centennial is next year. We’re the original home of Top Gun. We have a huge Navy heritage, and yet when you think about it, there was no memorial, museum, visitor attraction like Midway in San Diego. It took 12 years, all privately raised – fundraised. More than three dozen permits. The application to the Navy numbered more than 3,000 pages, the Coastal Commission, the Port, the City, going through all that effort. Ultimately, in 2003, Midway arrived. We opened in June of 2004, so we’re coming up on our 6th anniversary as a museum and we’re the most visited floating ship museum in the country.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, what do you hear people say? Because I know you take an active part in seeing the visitors view the ship and view the flight deck where we are right now. And what are some of the comments they make and questions that they have?
MCGAUGH: Two things come to mind. We actually interview about 50 guests every single day for a variety of obvious marketing purposes. They come away amazed at the people stories, the personal legacy, what it takes to operate a carrier like this. As we were talking about just a moment ago, that it’s not all pilots, as important as they are. The amount of trust, the amount of teamwork, the amount of youth that it takes to successfully operate an aircraft carrier. They are equally amazed by the size and the complexity. They had no idea. Well over 90% of our guests have never been aboard a carrier when they first step aboard the USS Midway. So there’s a great deal of awe, amazement, and oftentimes by the time they leave, there’s a great deal of humility, appreciation and inspiration.
CAVANAUGH: Apparently they were not kidding when they were talking about today being a windy day.
MCGAUGH: Yes, absolutely. The weatherman got it right.
CAVANAUGH: Our little canopy here looks like it’s going to take flight but we’re…
MCGAUGH: Flight ops are about to get underway here on the flight deck.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Exactly. You know, as we’re here on the fight deck of the USS Midway Museum and we’re commemorating the event that will take place to honor the rescuers and the rescued of April 30th, 1975, Abe, you teach teenagers about U.S. history and about the Vietnam war. What questions do they ask you?
SHRAGGE: These days it seems that the Vietnam war is almost ancient history. A lot of kids have no idea how close to it, you know, how close to it it really is, how close to our experience that time really was. It’s hard for them to understand the ideological principles that the United States was fighting for. It’s very hard for them to understand the sacrifices as well that Americans made for this very remote part of the world. They’re also shocked at the amount of loss that was experienced during the war. Various estimates put Vietnamese losses at about three and a half million people or more. And the cost of that is something that’s very hard for students to reconcile.
CAVANAUGH: There are not very many opportunities for veterans of the Vietnam war to celebrate. They’re, of course, commemorated with deep respect at ‘The Wall’ in Washington, D.C. But it sounds like the tenor of this celebration, Scott, is a little bit different than most of the opportunities that Vietnam war veterans get to observe.
MCGAUGH: Yes, you know, it’s kind of a combination, in some respects, depending upon whether you’re a veteran or a refugee of Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and a little bit of July 4th all rolled into one. In working with the Vietnamese communities of San Diego and Orange County for nearly a year leading up to tomorrow, it was made very clear to us that this is not a day to celebrate. It is a day to honor freedom in America and reflect on the loss and the tragedy and also respect the opportunity and the freedom that, for some, came from that. So it’s a unusual day from that perspective. I think tomorrow’s going to be a day of reflection, a day of emotion, and a day of thank-yous.
CAVANAUGH: And, Abe, I’d like you to add to that, if you could. What do you think a commemoration like this – what is the proper tone?
SHRAGGE: I think somberness, seriousness, some joy as well that we can remember back to 1886 when we opened the Statue of Liberty to the public, that this is a nation that was created by immigrants. It was a nation that was supposed to support and nurture and welcome immigrants. And to have relived that in 1975 in this particular way under these circumstances, I think, is a very fitting tribute to a long historical process and a long heritage and tradition.
CAVANAUGH: And just quickly, Scott, we’re going to have you back later on in the show to tell us more about the event that’s taking place onboard this flight deck but you told us before the show started a very interesting snippet about how many people are going to be taking part.
MCGAUGH: Yes. To be honest, we’re surprised. The more we got into the planning, the more we realized how important this day is. There’s so many people, so many different parts of our community fabric. We know at least 2,000 people have bought tickets specifically for the event. We know that – we anticipate perhaps 50% more. We have more than 20 buses from Orange County coming down, nearly 500 school children on field trips are coming to experience living history, if you will. It promises to be a very special day and perhaps a unique day in Midway’s final mission as a museum, as a visitor destination and as a memorial.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much. I’ve been speaking with Scott McGaugh, who we’ll see again, talk to again, by the end of the program. Abe Shragge is professor of history, teaches a class on War and American Society at UC San Diego. Thank you so much.
SHRAGGE: You’re very welcome, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now I do want to remind people that you can go to KPBS.org to see more pictures, you can see video, hear more stories about Operation Frequent Wind and the fall of Saigon. Or if you’d like to comment, you can go to KPBS.org/thesedays. We have to take a short break, and when we return we’ll welcome the former captain and the former air boss of the USS Midway during the tumultuous evacuation of Operation Frequent Wind. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.