Thursday, April 29, 2010
Vietnamese-American Dzung Le and USS Midway air boss Vern Jumper recall their bitter-sweet memories of the chaotic evacuation of people from Saigon as South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam 35 years ago.
Thirty-five years ago, the lives of two men intersected on the USS Midway. Their paths were very different -- one man was fleeing from the Vietnam War, and the other was helping to save him. This month, the two men, Vietnamese refugee Dzung Le and Naval Air Boss Vern Jumper, met for the first time on the flight deck of the USS Midway to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
"On behalf of all the Vietnamese who came on here, I would like to thank you and all your crew members, the captains, everyone who welcomed us here on the very, very sad day of my country," said Dzung Le. "Thank you so much."
It was our pleasure to help you," replied Vern Jumper. "So good to have you aboard. So nice to meet you."
"It's been a long time. I've never been here. I've tried to avoid that. It brings back so much memories. The memories here are good, but it carries with me a lot of sadness too," said Le.
Sadness that Dzung Le still feels as he recalls when he and his family, along with thousands of refugees waited at the airport to evacuate from Saigon as North Vietnam invaded the South. Le was 18 years old at the time.
The bad news came when dawn came," said Le. "Because when dawn came, it turns out that there were sporadic rockets falling into the airport. We don't know where, but the latest news is that the plane cannot land. So there's no more plane. And I remember that when people were saying that then, there was really a sense of panic."
About 35 miles off the coast of Saigon was American Vern Jumper, Air Boss of the USS Midway. He was preparing his crew to launch the helicopters, which would be used instead of airplanes to rescue the refugees.
On the 29th is when it actually started," said Jumper. "It was around noontime and we got the word to start launching the H-53s."
Those were the helicopters that Dzung Le and his sisters sat in as they were transported to the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in U.S. history. It was the first time that he had ever been in an aircraft.
It was a very, very weird feeling because you’re leaving and you don’t know where you're going," said Le. "So I remember that in the back there were windows, and we looked out and I looked down as we rose above Saigon. It looked very peaceful.
The flight deck of the USS Midway was anything but peaceful as more than 3,000 Vietnamese refugees filed out of helicopters.
It was chaotic, I have to admit that, but it was controlled chaos," said Jumper. "It was very sad. A lot of children, a lot of elderly. If you could put yourself in their situation, they were leaving their country and they had no idea where they were going. And you could see the sadness in their eyes," he said.
Today, Vern Jumper lives in La Mesa and is a volunteer docent on the Midway. Dzung Le lives in Rancho Penasquitos and works as a pathologist at UCSD. Thirty-five years later, he still feels a sense of guilt for leaving his country on that April day in 1975.
"Even now, 35 years later, I can still feel that" said Le. "Yeah, because I feel that we are very lucky to be here, but there's 40 million at that time that weren’t so lucky. It really hurts when you think about your close friends, and they have to do this, do that, to survive. And it will never go away,"