USS Midway Veterans Recall Fall of Saigon
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This is a special live broadcast. You can probably tell that already. You can hear the sound of the winds and the flags on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. Now we just heard the extraordinary story of this retired aircraft carrier from the time it was first commissioned right after World War II through the Cold War and Desert Storm, to its new life as a museum here on San Diego Bay. But there was one military operation that stands out even in the Midway's illustrious career, it’s Operation Frequent Wind. Many of the officers, sailors and Vietnamese people involved in the airlift evacuation from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war have gathered in San Diego for a 35th anniversary ceremony tomorrow. Right now, it’s my pleasure to welcome two people who led this rescue operation onboard the USS Midway. Admiral Lawrence Chambers was Captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind. He’s now retired. Admiral Chambers, welcome.
ADMIRAL LAWRENCE CHAMBERS (USN, ret., former Captain, USS Midway): Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Commander Vern Jumper was air boss – air boss, that is, on the flight deck of the USS Midway. He’s also retired. Commander Jumper, thank you for speaking with us today.
COMMANDER VERN JUMPER (USN, ret., former Flight Deck Air Boss, USS Midway): Well, thank you for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Admiral Chambers, and I will call you Larry as this goes…
CHAMBERS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: What sights and sounds of that day 35 years ago do you remember most?
CHAMBERS: Maureen, the tough part of the whole operation was seeing the people on the flight deck and trying – if you can remember, we have a bunch of tough, young bosun’s mates that are running the flight deck operations and I have never in my life seen such a tender moment on behalf of the crew. They were handling the people in the most courteous manner you could possibly imagine and among the chaos the hard part was don’t hurt anybody, and we were very fortunate. I think we got through and maybe with a couple of skinned knees and that was about the extent of it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you – When was it that you were given orders to assist in the evacuation of these Vietnamese citizens?
CHAMBERS: We were in Subic Bay with the engineering plant partially torn down and we were ordered to get underway, make best speed, to rescue the – to get to the site to be prepared for Frequent Wind, and in the process pick up some Air Force helicopters that were going to assist us in the process.
CAVANAUGH: And how did you prepare the crew to accomplish this?
CHAMBERS: You hold drills. You just – you try to think and imagine every possible catastrophe that could happen and to try to be ahead of it. And no matter how much planning you do and how much training you do, you’re always going to find some surprises.
CAVANAUGH: Now where was the Midway actually when it was – it started to receive helicopters filled with people?
CHAMBERS: We were in the Tonkin Gulf just off the coast of Vietnam. We were about an hour and 15 minutes flight time by helicopters out to sea.
CAVANAUGH: And did that start on the 29th or the 30th?
CHAMBERS: It started on the 29th. Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, the Vice President of Vietnam, landed on the flight deck and he was the first person to come out of Saigon. And that’s – we never got – received the order to execute. When we saw the Vice President of Vietnam show up, we knew the operation was going on. And so we just started going.
CAVANAUGH: Now as I understand it, the original idea was that there were going to be fixed wing aircraft evacuating a lot of people from Saigon but there was something that happened to the Saigon airport.
CHAMBERS: There were a lot of folks going in and out. There were a number of aircraft and a number of folks got out via aircraft. The helicopters made numerous trips and I noticed that in your previous, you didn’t mention that Air America was also among the evacuees and that happens to be CIA.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, so you had a CIA helicopter on – on…
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Okay. Let me talk to Commander Jumper, if I may, for a minute because as I understand it, you were Air Boss of the flight deck on April 30th – and April 29th and 30th, 1975.
JUMPER: Yes, that’s correct, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And what does an Air Boss do?
JUMPER: Well, I controlled the pattern around the ship. I’m actually a tower controller and I control the pattern and the movement of all the aircraft on the flight and hangar deck, in addition to a few other jobs like catapults and arresting gear and fuel systems. But on the 29th and 30th, of course, it was mainly control of the helicopters.
CAVANAUGH: Now we’re on the flight deck as I keep saying, but about, what is it, about one, maybe two, stories above us is the – a tower. Basically, command central up there. Is that where you were? In that booth up there over us, so to speak?
JUMPER: Yes, that’s the control tower for the ship. It’s called Primary Flight Control, nicknamed Pri-Fly. It’s five stories above the flight deck.
CAVANAUGH: It’s five stories.
JUMPER: Five stories above the flight deck, 44 steps. I know. I’ve run up and down them quite often.
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine. Yeah. You did have a chance to count them apparently.
JUMPER: Yes, yes.
CAVANAUGH: What did it look like down here? Was it…
CAVANAUGH: …anything that you’d ever seen before?
JUMPER: Oh, no. No. Midway is an attack carrier. Now all of a sudden we’re put into the role of being a helicopter carrier. And we operate helicopters, of course, off our ship. We always have a detachment of four helicopters. But this was a new role for the Midway and a new role for my flight deck crew, and they just handled the job superbly. We had radio contact with the 10 H-53s onboard. These are called ‘jolly green giants.’ But we also took onboard 45 Huey helicopters that we had no radio contact. We were using hand signals to the pilots to control where they landed on the flight deck. It was chaotic but it was controlled chaos, and it worked perfectly. I have to say that. At one time, Commander Pete Theodorelos, my assistant air boss, and I counted 26 Hueys circling the ship and we recovered every one. Not one had to ditch in the ocean.
CAVANAUGH: That scene, Admiral Chambers, of all of these helicopters circling, now I want to know what was in your mind when you saw that. Did you think you would be able, without radio contact for a lot of those helicopters, be able to get those copters to land on the Midway?
CHAMBERS: The pilots, the flight deck crews, the officers manning, were all trained in signal flags and in light signals. Red Aldis lamp says don’t land, green Aldis lamp says you’ve got permission to land. And Vern and his guys were in control of the pattern. And the aviators were all experienced so the big thing is get the proper signal to them and you can get them onboard.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Admiral Lawrence Chambers, retired. He was Captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind. And also here, Commander Vern Jumper, and we are talking about what is going to be commemorated here at the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese people from Saigon, and most of them came here on the flight deck of the Midway. Larry, what was it like when the people landed?
CHAMBERS: Your – A flight deck is a hazardous operation under normal conditions. And when you see little kids and mothers holding little babies and airplanes, helicopters are taking off and landing, you just kind of hold your breath, Maureen, and pray. That’s about all you can do. And the crew was trained, put your faith in the crew, and cross your fingers.
CAVANAUGH: Now, did they do anything special to round the people up once they got off the helicopters so that they could get off the flight deck as quickly as possible?
CHAMBERS: Yes, the Master at Arms and the Marines would guide the people into the island and provide – we provided food, we provided medical care, and then we transferred by our own helicopters to other ships in company so that we could keep the flow going, so to speak.
CAVANAUGH: I think we have pictures of people following ropes from the helicopter and they’re basically being guided, told not to let go of that rope, as they come off the flight deck and get into a safer part of the ship.
CHAMBERS: Well, for the most of the helicopter operations the wind over the deck, probably was around 15 knots, 15 miles an hour. And so it’s not too chaotic as far as the elements are concerned. It was rainy on the second day and the flight decks were a little slippery. But on a normal flight ops, when the ship turns into the wind, you’ve got 30 knots of wind over the deck, then the crew is trained to handle it but it wasn’t – the conditions weren’t quite as bad as it would’ve been if we were doing fixed wing operations so…
CAVANAUGH: Speaking of fixed wing operation, perhaps the most staggering story of that day is the story of the landing of the Bird Dog. Do you want to tell us about that? Larry?
CHAMBERS: Maureen, I saw the Bird Dog circling. The flag officer embarked at the time suggested that we try to tell him to ditch. We invited a Vietnamese interpreter to go up and assist Vern and when you’re under stress, you may or may not – The pilot spoke English, but under stress we were prepared to speak Vietnamese to him. And as it turned out, he didn’t have a radio.
CAVANAUGH: Right, now what kind of a plane was the Bird Dog? Vern?
JUMPER: It was an L-19. It’s a small observation airplane, a little two-seated airplane, tandem seats. And it’s like a Cessna 152.
CAVANAUGH: So all you know at this point is that there is a Vietnamese pilot flying a small plane. He obviously wants to land on your aircraft carrier. And I’m wondering, Larry, so what happens at that point?
CHAMBERS: Well, the first thing, I said, why me, Lord? And then we went to work. We obviously were going to have to make a ready deck. The deck was clobbered.
CAVANAUGH: Now what did you find out about this pilot, though, that made it absolutely essential that he not ditch that plane but get onboard the Midway?
CHAMBERS: We have field glasses that we put on him and we could see that there was a pilot, we could see that there was a person in the back holding another person, and then out of the baggage compartment there was another head. So we could see four heads, and we didn’t know that there were more people onboard. We knew there were at least four. There were only two seats, only two people were going to be strapped down, so if you ditch it and it’s fixed gear, it’s going to flip over and the only person that’s going to escape is a professional and everybody else on it wouldn’t have a chance.
CAVANAUGH: Wouldn’t have a chance, so those people would definitely not survive. But didn’t you also get a written communication?
CHAMBERS: Yes. The pilot attempted to communicate with us since he didn’t have a radio. He dropped several notes onboard. I think two of the notes continued over the side. And…
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I can see. I mean, so how in the world did you even get one note?
CHAMBERS: Well, the third note dropped, apparently hit either one of the fire trucks and it knocked it down and stayed onboard. He had wrapped, I believe, the note was wrapped either in a bullet, something that had a little mass to it and that’s the only way he was able to get it on board. And the note physically said he was Major Bung Ly and I have wife and 5 child on board. Please let me land on your runway.
CAVANAUGH: Now how did you find out that, Vern, how did you find that out, that message?
JUMPER: Well, Captain Chambers, of course, and I, we were discussing this all the time and Captain made a great decision when he said, Vern, we’re going to take him aboard, give him your ready deck. And to this day, I think I – I admire that decision because we would never have saved those poor folks.
CAVANAUGH: Now what does it mean for a ready deck…
CAVANAUGH: …considering all the chaos that was going on.
JUMPER: Well, we had – the angle deck or the whole flight deck was just clobbered with helicopters, mainly Huey helicopters, and we had to clear the angle deck. And the Huey helicopters are on skids, there are no wheels on them. They’re not easy to move around. But we went to work. My great flight deck crew went to work and they cleared that angle deck in a very great fashion. We got a clear deck. And it was a nasty, rainy day. It was rainy, the deck was slick. But we had a good, no pitching deck. That was wonderful. No deck movement.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you say cleared the deck, they pushed those helicopters overboard.
JUMPER: Not all of them, no.
JUMPER: We pushed three Hueys and one Chinook over the side.
JUMPER: And that was just to make spots for other aircraft that were running out of fuel, running low on fuel.
CAVANAUGH: But that was a first.
CAVANAUGH: I don’t think you’d done that before.
JUMPER: No, we hadn’t done that before. And that, again, was – Captain Chambers made great decisions there to allow us to push those helicopters over the side because I know he had a lot of pressure from the Admiral and I don’t know the conversations that took place but I’m sure they were very interesting about that decision.
CAVANAUGH: You want to tell us some of those conversations?
CHAMBERS: Maureen, I had been in command of the ship probably about four or five weeks and I said this is probably going to be the shortest command tour on record. And so it – Once you decide it’s going to be a short command tour then you do what you have to do, and you said clear the deck.
CHAMBERS: And once we turned into the wind, another group of helicopters landed from Saigon when we were about to accept the Bird Dog and Vern said what do you want to do with those? And I said, well, you know, we’re already there. Just push those over the side, too.
CAVANAUGH: So in total, how many of the helicopters do you think went over the side?
CHAMBERS: I did not look because I thought I was going to get a court martial and I wanted to be able to sit down in front of them and said, I don’t know.
JUMPER: I don’t know.
JUMPER: We’ll just guess at the numbers then.
CAVANAUGH: …the story doesn’t end there because, you know, as it turns out, it’s not easy to land a small plane like that on a flight deck like this, is it?
CHAMBERS: No, ma’am. And with a pilot with no carrier landing experience, it was cross your fingers and – and hope. And I believe the pilot had at least three or four thousand hours in the airplane, which made him very familiar with the airplane. And we put enough wind over the deck that we knew we could stop him but in high winds there is turbulence behind the ship and we just hoped that he could carry enough power to get through the turbulence. And he did, and it was amazing. He touched down at the normal touchdown point, rolled to a stop, and the crew completely engulfed the airplane. It was an amazing sight.
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine. And now this, of course, is a landing on an aircraft carrier without a tailhook.
JUMPER: Without a tailhook.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, were you able to communicate, Vern, with this pilot in any way?
JUMPER: No way at all, because all we could do is put a green light on him with an Aldis lamp to let him know that we were going to allow him to land. Also, he watched us as we turned into the wind. And he made a couple of low passes, just a couple of practice approaches, and he did quite well although he was getting low on – I was giving him power calls from Pri-Fly but of course he couldn’t hear me. But on his final approach, he made a great landing. And you have to understand, we had close – I think we had about 42 or 43 knots of wind across the deck…
JUMPER: …and he’s making about 50 knots so you can see his closure rate is not great. And so that was wonderful. He touched down right in the landing area. We had already stripped the wires off the deck, the arresting gear wires. He bounced once, rolled up the deck and we open – they opened up the hatch and out stepped the pilot and his wife, holding a baby, and these four other little kids. And my flight deck crew were just whooping and hollering.
JUMPER: They were so excited. That was a wonderful sight.
CAVANAUGH: I can imagine that would be a wonderful memory. And one of the things that makes this story even more catching, heart thumping, is the fact that when the pilot, Bung Ly, when he took off, he didn’t know whether or not you would let him land on this ship.
CHAMBERS: Maureen, he had less than an hour of fuel when he was circling the ship. He needed about an hour and a half of fuel to make it back to dry land, so he was already committed.
CAVANAUGH: Point of no return…
CAVANAUGH: …as they say.
JUMPER: Point of no return.
CAVANAUGH: Tell me, you both have told us this story so touchingly, I think, and it – we can feel how the crew must’ve felt when this family got onboard the ship. I wonder if you could tell me, Larry, how was the crew. What were the spirits of the crew like during the day, April 30th and April 29th?
CHAMBERS: Morale was very high, surprisingly high considering the operation that we were participating in. And I couldn’t have been more proud of the crew. You can’t believe that the world is run by 19-year-olds, and they do fantastic things as long as you keep them busy.
CAVANAUGH: Words for any parent, right? Now I’m wondering, once the Vietnamese people who’d landed on this ship, got onboard this ship, where did they stay? Where did you take them?
CHAMBERS: We’d take them down to the hanger bay. You walked through the hanger bay, it’s…
CHAMBERS: Although there were aircraft down there, it would still – you can pack thousands of people down there. And the crew is 4500 feet (sic) – people it doesn’t seem crowded at all so – And we had left some of the crew back in Subic Bay in preparation to have bunks available for people that needed them and there was plenty of space. People slept on the foc’sle, which is where the anchoring gear is, and they were sleeping everywhere. And we provided food. The doctors looked at them. The dentists looked at them. It was an interesting operation to say…
CAVANAUGH: And how long were most of the evacuees onboard?
CHAMBERS: Most of them were onboard less than 24 hours.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
CHAMBERS: And when the operation was over, we had about 80 that we felt were – that were infirm and we weren’t capable of transferring them on so we just carried those folks to Guam.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Vern, I know that you’re a docent on the Midway Museum and so coming back for this event to commemorate Operation Frequent Wind wasn’t difficult for you. But I would like to know what this – what does it mean for you?
JUMPER: Well, I think Scott McGaugh really put it very well, that it’s a commemorative event. It’s a sad event, too. The people we rescued, if you could have seen their faces on the ship, it was so sad. And can you envision taking your family and driving over to Lindbergh Field and put all your worldly good in a pillowcase and then get on some strange machine and fly out to sea and know that you’re never going to see your country again? That was the atmosphere that we saw, and it was very sad. Small children, they’re – certainly, they’re scared, they’re on this big aircraft carrier, and they’ve been flying around in this noisy helicopter, scaring them to death. It was just amazing. But the event tomorrow is, as I said, a commemorative event. It’s going to be a happy event and a sad event at the same time.
CAVANAUGH: And I know, Larry, that you traveled here for this event, and we do know that you didn’t get court martialed.
CHAMBERS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You retired as an admiral.
CHAMBERS: Yes, I did.
CAVANAUGH: And what are your feelings about the commemorative event?
CHAMBERS: Well, Vern and Scott really set the stage, and I can’t really add anything to it. But I would like to make one tribute to the pilot. He’s the bravest man I have ever met in my life.
CAVANAUGH: And you’re speaking of Bung…
CHAMBERS: Major Bung Ly, yes.
JUMPER: Bung Ly, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I thank you for that. I’m sure that he thanks you for that. And I want to thank you both so much for speaking with us. I really do appreciate it. I’ve been speaking with Admiral Lawrence Chambers and Commander Vern Jumper. They’ve been sharing their memories of what happened on this flight desk 35 years ago as thousands of Vietnamese refugees were airlifted onboard the flight deck of the USS Midway. Thank you so much.
CHAMBERS: Thank you, Maureen.
JUMPER: Thank you for having us, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: If listeners would like to comment, they can always go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for our next hour, broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.