The USS Midway and Seven Souls
The USS Midway is a floating hulk of high-maintenance scrap metal. It is also a museum of high interest to those, like me, who love history and have personal ties to those who have served. But inert it sits in the marina harbor at San Diego, largely stripped of its humanity, with few vestiges of the human spirit and valor that once filled its decks. I was struck, when I wandered through the Midway, feeling the cold and uneven steel of its interior hollows, portals, pipes, and clanking floors, that the traces of its men, the sailors and officers, cooks and corpsmen, had been scrubbed or wrenched away from the ship. I remember a single remnant that made me consider my kinship with at least one of its Vietnam era inhabitants; the torn corner of a Pink Floyd poster, stuck to the wall next to a lower bunk in the enlisted men’s quarters. I connected with that sailor and Pink Floyd fan, whoever he was. That little scrap of promotional art helped me remember that these were men of flesh and blood, preferences and persuasions, courage and fear, and, on April 30, 1975, surging compassion.
The fall of Saigon, the end of the war, whatever you want to call it, the last day of April, 36 years ago, was a tragic and harrowing moment in American and world history. The Ford administration concluded that it was of no use for the American military in South Vietnam to further resist the southward movements of the North Vietnamese forces. Evacuations would be the final American act in South Vietnam before it would completely fall to the Communists. It was a risky and complicated mission and would later become known as Operation Frequent Wind. The first exigency was that all Americans be quickly transported out of the country, the capital of Saigon in particular. But those in greatest jeopardy were the South Vietnamese military personnel and citizens who had supported America in the war against Communism in the North.
Bulky cargo helicopters known as Super Stallions were used in the frenzied removal of refugees from South Vietnam. The USS Carrier Midway was accustomed to having a flight deck full of aircraft, but on this day the aircraft were laden with frightened and exhausted people. The ship was able to accommodate thousands of fleeing Vietnamese but it lacked the space for all of the aircraft. Many South Vietnamese pilots were ordered to drop off their human cargo, fly back out to sea and ditch the helicopters, after which a rescue crew would pull them from the waves. Still, the deck of the Midway was packed with refugees and machines. Since there were no fighters taking off or landing there was no need to keep a clear path for a fixed-wind craft, so long as the helicopters had enough room to safely evacuate their exile passengers. But things would quickly change and on that day some of the best aviation technology of the time, worth millions, would be regarded as nothing more than metal, glass, and Naugahyde.
One of the crewmen on the bridge of the Midway noticed a speck in the distance over the South China Sea. It looked different than the incoming helicopters and as it approached it became evident that it was a small airplane, a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog observation plane. As the plane passed over for the third time the the pilot dropped a note written in Vietnamese which landed on the deck. The skipper, Captain Lawrence Chambers, and crew had been speculating about who was in the airplane, and whether there were more people than just the pilot. The little note quickly answered those questions. South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung-Ly, his wife and five children, were crammed into the two seat cabin of the Cessna. Bung-Ly had evaded enemy ground fire upon taking to the air. He headed out to sea with his terrified family and that’s when he spotted the Midway.
There was no clearing on the Midway’s flight deck sufficiently long for the little airplane to land. Ditching the airplane in the sea, as many of the other pilots had to do, would put Bung-Ly’s family at terrible risk. The Major had already considered his options, for in the note he scrawled in a frantic plea: “Can you move the helicopters to the other side. I can land on your runway. I can fly for one hour more, we have enough time to move. Please rescue me! Major Bung (Ly), wife and 5 child.” His desperate call was one of last resort. Having served alongside the Americans he, along with his family, would be killed by the Viet Cong if captured. He and his family scrambled aboard the cramped observation plane and took off from a small airfield on Con Son Island with no options remaining.
There was little deliberation and almost instantaneous action by Captain Chambers who ordered that all of the arresting wires drawn across the deck in order to reduce the speed of the landing jets be removed. He did not hesitate to order every available seaman on deck to move as many helicopters as possible to one side of the ship. Any aircraft impeding the ingress of the little Bird-dog and its invaluable cargo would be pushed overboard and into the sea. Within minutes $10 million unadjusted dollars worth of high-tech, expensively outfitted aircraft became water-filled crates, finding their way to the bottom of the South China Sea.
Bung-Ly continued to circle the airplane, its fuel burning steadily away. Captain Chambers ordered the Midway to change direction as messages were transmitted to the Major in both English and Vietnamese, warning him of the dangerous downdrafts that always followed a moving carrier. During these exchanges with Bung-Ly, five additional UH-1 helicopters landed on the deck. The refugees were ushered off and away from those savior machines, and they too were promptly scuttled.
With the next pass of the Bird Dog, Major Bung-Ly straightened the plane and prepared to land. The South Vietnamese pilot had never before landed on the deck of a carrier, and this would be a first as well for small aircraft such as the Cessna. The crew watched with anxious intensity from the bridge and decks as the airplane approached. In a stroke of masterful flying, the Major cleared the ramp at the end of the deck and touched down, as if he had done it a thousand times, on the center line at the normal touchdown point. The plane bounced once as the crew rushed the plane, grabbing the wingtips with their hands to slow its landing and bring it to a secure stop.
The men of the Midway cheered and whooped wildly as they jammed in close to the craft. Major Bung-Ly and his wife were embraced and welcomed aboard as the children, one by one, were clutched by the strong hands of American sailors, and handed down the line until they were all standing on the deck of the rolling ship. The Cessna O-1 Bird Dog was ordered by Captain Chambers to be secured on deck. It, unlike the war machines that were cast into the ocean having lost their purpose, was a ship of life; the little airplane that delivered seven precious souls to the safety of their American friends. Captain Chambers asked Bung-Ly to join him on the bridge where he congratulated him for his expert airmanship and inestimable bravery. Before the sun set on that April day in 1975, the men of the Midway began to gather money from their own pockets to create a fund for the passage of Bung-Ly and his family to America where they would begin their lives anew.
The faithful Bird Dog now hangs on display at the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. The relieved and tear stained faces of the thousands of South Vietnamese refugees, and seven souls flown in a little airplane, hang in the hearts of the men who became both rescuers and enthusiasts that day. Although South Vietnam and its South-East Asian neighbors fell quickly into a Communist hell following the retreat of American forces, the men of the Midway acted as Americans do when friends are in peril. It is a fully American thing to value each life, and make rescue the imperative above all, whether the price is money, metal, or blood.
By Marjorie Haun 4/26/2011