Welcome back to “Karl’s Korner”, a historical segment written by myself, Karl Zingheim – Ship Historian of the USS Midway Museum!
With the Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and Operation Frequent Wind coming this month, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of Midway’s Docents, Vern Jumper.
Today, we recognize Vern as a key member of our volunteer program, a friendly Docent with a permanent smile on his face. But, Vern’s connection to the USS Midway runs much deeper than many know. Sit back, relax and hear about Vern’s historic decision that saved thousands of lives…
Early in the spring of 1975 the North Vietnamese Army launched its latest invasion of South Vietnam. By this time, American combat units were no longer in country, and President Gerald Ford decided not to commit any air power to assist the beleaguered South Vietnamese. By the middle of April, the South Vietnamese were steadily losing ground and U. S. planners initiated a contingency evacuation plan to fly out government personnel and other imperiled people if South Vietnam collapsed. Called Operation Frequent Wind, the plan involved the use of U. S. Air Force helicopters to ferry the evacuees from landing zones around Saigon to ships of the Seventh Fleet waiting off shore, including the USS Midway.
Vern Jumper was the Air Boss on the Midway, overseeing all flight operations on deck and within a five-mile radius of the ship. He recalls how the Midway became involved:
“We left Yokosuka and were supposed to have ten days at Cubi Point for maintenance. Just three days in we got word to participate in an evacuation off Vietnam. Most of our aircraft were landed at Cubi and about 200 personnel as well to make room.”
In place of the Midway aircraft, ten powerful HH-53 Air Force helicopters flew aboard while plans developed. By April 28, Saigon was imperiled, and Operation Frequent Wind would commence the next morning. Everything depended on the performance of Vern’s flight deck team, and he had some of the best, including his leading flight deck chief, C. J. Heard.
At 1530 the afternoon of April 29 all ten Air Force -53’s set off over the horizon towards Saigon. Within two hours, the sky began to fill with helicopters of every description: the Air Force machines, Navy SH-3 Sea Kings shuttling between ships, and South Vietnamese helicopters large, like the CH-47 Chinook, and small, like the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey. “We had no idea what was coming,” Vern recalled. “For the Air Force helos, we would hot refuel them, while the engines were still turning, for as quick a turnaround as possible to get ‘em airborne back to Saigon.”
“At one point we counted twenty-six Hueys circling around the ship,” Vern remembers, “and not one had radio contact.” Vern’s team resorted to hand signals to guide the Vietnamese pilots in, as Vern called the available landing spots to C. J. on the flight deck as they came open. One Huey landed with fifty people crammed aboard. A crisis developed not long after when a Marine CH-46 Sea Knight hovered right off the Fresnel Lens platform, reporting it had fifty people on board and just five minutes’ fuel remaining. The rest of the flight deck was packed, so Vern called to another CH-46 refueling along the deck edge and sent him up with just ten minutes’ fuel inside to wait nearby and have the overloaded Sean Knight take his place for a moment. “They had just ten feet of clearance between their rotors,” said Vern, “It was scary.”
30 hours that changed history
Despite his team’s skill and improvisations, more helicopters were arriving than could be safely handled on even Midway’s four acres of flight deck. “We pushed over the side four Hueys and one Chinook,” Vern stated, “One guy got his pant leg caught on the Chinook as it was sliding over, but two other guys pulled him free.” C. J. called back up to Vern, “We pushed over more than $14 million in helos. Boss, it’s coming out of your pay!” Though the pace was beyond grueling, Vern ensured his people paced themselves. He ordered them to lie down and rest every time an opportunity appeared and before long, every door way and passage leading to the flight deck had crewmen finding places to nap.
Over the course of thirty hours of continuous operations, the Midway took aboard some 3,073 refugees, Vietnamese servicemen, civilians, and women and children. Peering down from Flight Deck Control, Vern watched the intermittent streams of people stepping off the helicopters. “They were such a sad sight. Families were split up. You could see it in their eyes.”
The Bird Dog
More drama emerged on the 30th when a small light plane approached and circled the ship. Identified as a South Vietnamese O-1 Birddog spotter plane, it made several slow passes over the flight deck as the pilot attempted to drop a message. Finally, a scrawled note on a torn piece of map stated there were seven people aboard, including five small children, and the pilot asked if the “runway” could be cleared for a landing. Vern and Captain Larry Chambers quickly conferred and determined that a ditching in the sea nearby would be fatal. Without hesitation, Captain Chambers turned the Midway into wind and rang up full speed, putting forty knots of wind across the deck as Vern’s team cleared the angled deck.
The little plane lined up perfectly and landed near the number three wire, bumping along to a short landing roll to the cheers of the crew. As Vern recalls, “They pulled up the back seat and out popped four little kids. My flight deck crew just hooted and hollered—it was a beautiful day.” The Midway eventually transferred all her refugees to other ships, or to Guam, where a total of 52 South Vietnamese aircraft from both the evacuation and those picked up days later in Thailand were also offloaded. Today, Vern is part of our Docent Corps, entertaining our guests, and explaining the basics of flight deck activities.
Could you imagine being a part of this fearless and compassionate crew? Could you imagine having to abandon your home town & trust that all would be well?
Let me know in the comment below! Thank you for reading, liking, sharing & commenting.
Launch em’… until next time,