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If you are new to reading my segments; I am the ship historian of the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, CA. I write monthly historical pieces entitled “Karl’s Korner”.
This is a place to share with you – our social media followers, our visitors, and our Midway family – slices of history from my screen to yours. Please comment, please share, and let me know of any other aircraft carrier, US Navy history, or Midway specific topics that you would like to hear more about!
As we dive into the last full week of April our focus travels back 41 years ago, to a moment in time that we will never forget aboard the USS Midway. April 30, 1975 marks the date of Operation Frequent Wind, one of the largest humanitarian rescues in naval history.
Join me as I look back…
44 Years Earlier
In 1973 America’s fighting in Southeast Asia ended, placing the combat burden against North Vietnam squarely on the shoulders of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). In the spring of 1975, Hanoi’s latest offensive rapidly gained momentum, and by April 20th, defeat outside Saigon spelled the end of organized ARVN resistance. That same day, the Midway arrived off Vung Tau on the southern coast of South Vietnam. Most of her air wing had been replaced with large Air Force H-53 helicopters tasked with evacuating American personnel and certain South Vietnamese civilians from Saigon. Joining her were the carrier Hancock task force which had just concluded an evacuation of Cambodia’s capital as well as the carriers Enterprise and Coral Sea to provide combat air support if needed.
By April 25th, President Thieu had fled to exile in Taiwan, creating pandemonium throughout South Vietnam. On the afternoon of April 29th the first helicopters lifted off from the flight decks offshore and Operation Frequent Wind commenced. Over the American Armed Forces Radio band, the prearranged broadcast of “White Christmas” alerted U. S. government officials and third party nationals that the final evacuations were starting. Due to previous incidents with rampaging ARVN deserters, armed Marines held the designated landing zones as well as stood by on the recovery ships, including the flight deck of the Midway.
Throughout that afternoon and into the following evening the Air Force helicopters shuttled 60 people at a time to the Midway as nearby vessels took aboard other contingents. To prevent overcrowding, the Midway’s own SH-3 Sea King helicopters transferred civilians to neighboring ships. By the following morning, the Midway’s helicopters had lifted some 3,073 refugees out of Saigon.
The collapse of authority ashore led to an aerial exodus as fleets of South Vietnamese military helicopters packed with escapees also sped out to sea seeking a friendly deck. Some could land aboard, but eventually, others were only allowed to alight long enough to drop off passengers and then the pilot had to lift off over the sea and jump from mid-air to be rescued by boat. In all, some 45 Huey and 3 larger Chinook helicopters landed on the Midway, though some had to be pushed overboard to make room for newer arrivals.
In an operation abounding with drama, the most spectacular incident occurred on the 30th when a small light plane, a South Vietnamese Air Force O-1 Birddog, approached the Midway. Crammed aboard were Major Buong Le, his wife, and five children. Lifting off from an island base, Buong had no detailed charts or even any clear idea on where the U. S. fleet could be found. He flew out towards the open sea and soon enough found the ships. With poor radio communications, he was forced to write a plaintive request for the carrier’s “runway” to be cleared on a scrap of map and dropped it stuffed into a leather holster onto the Midway’s flight deck.
Informed of the children packed aboard and the plane’s dwindling fuel supply, Midway’s Captain Lawrence Chambers quickly conferred with his Air Boss, Commander Vern Jumper, and determined that a water landing would be disastrous. After notifying his task force commander, Chambers ordered the flight deck cleared and Buong be allowed to land. Although rain was falling and the wind was picking up, Buong made a good approach and completed his carrier landing with room to spare, saving his entire family to the applause of the flight deck team.
When South Vietnam formally surrendered on April 30th, the evacuations stopped. Including the Midway’s 3,073 evacuees, 50,493 people were flown out by transport aircraft over the month, another 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and other nationals were lifted out by U. S. helicopters. Many thousands more would take to the sea in desperate conditions to flee the country as “boat people” in the coming years.
However, the Midway’s role was not yet finished. Many tactical aircraft were flown out by escaping South Vietnamese pilots and landed in neutral Thailand to the west. Concerned that this trove of warplanes would be handed over to the victorious communists, Washington sent the Midway into the Gulf of Thailand to retrieve these aircraft.
As the Midway lay off Bangkok, 52 F-5 fighters, A-37 attack jets, and CH-47 helicopters were barged over and craned aboard. On her way out on May 5th, the Midway encountered 84 refugees aboard a sinking fishing boat and Captain Chambers stopped the carrier and rescued them. The aircraft were eventually offloaded at Guam and the Midway resumed her duties in the Western Pacific.
The epic desperation of Operation Frequent Wind was the final act in 30 years of war in Vietnam, though many more would continue to flee the country in the following years. For the Midway, those hectic hours off South Vietnam were a high point in her career, as her flight deck became the first stepping stone to freedom for more than three thousand refugees and their posterity.
We received a visit onboard from a special visitor, Vu Duong. At a very young age, Vu and his family fled his homeland, Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind. The carrier that brought him and his family to America was none other than… the USS Midway.
Returning in February 2016 – 41 years later – he held a small black & white photo of him as a boy being carried from a Huey on the flight deck by his father during the evacuation of Vietnam…
He graciously told his rescue story to our volunteers who showed him his photo displayed in Midway University, the USS Midway’s onboard education center. Stories such as these are true Midway Magic.
Launch em’… until next time,