USS Midway Saves Thousands from Vietnam
The final American combat troops left Vietnam in March 1973 a few months after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. America’s involvement in war-torn Southeast Asia, however, would continue for years with thousands of government employees staying behind to assist South Vietnam.
When North Vietnamese communist forces surrounded Saigon in spring 1975, the remaining Americans and the tens of thousands South Vietnamese who had supported the United States were in jeopardy. Fears of prison, torture and death fueled their anxieties.
U.S. evacuations in Saigon started in early April, however, as the communist’s artillery shelling of the city intensified and the capital began to collapse into chaos, the final air evacuations were only possible by helicopters.
“I didn’t think we would be able to escape because the chances were so slim,” said Courtney Herrmann, a South Vietnamese refugee who was only 8 years old when she and her family got to the airport. “We were competing with thousands of others for space on the helicopters. I was petrified.”
With the fall of Saigon imminent, the USS Midway, along with a flotilla of U.S. Navy ships steamed to the waters off South Vietnam for the emergency evacuation. On April 29, 1975, Operation Frequent Wind commenced. For those involved, this massive humanitarian effort was nothing less than extraordinary.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the magnitude of what actually transpired,” said retired Rear Adm. Larry Chambers, who was the Midway’s commanding officer during the evacuation. “Plans had been in place for some time to evacuate South Vietnamese personnel who had supported the U.S. We had not planned or expected hundreds of helicopters.”
For 30 hours, American and South Vietnamese military helicopters converged nonstop on the Midway, many low on fuel and without radio communications with the ship.
“I counted as many as 26 helos circling the ship at one time,” remembered retired Cmdr. Vern Jumper, Midway’s air boss in charge of the ship’s flight operations. “My major concern was that one of them would crash on the deck. That would have killed lots of people.”
Stephanie Dinh was a frightened 15-year-old when she was evacuated to the Midway with her family.
“I didn’t have much hope to escape Vietnam,” said Stephanie, who now volunteers for the USS Midway Museum. “The helicopter was loud and bumpy. I did not have my eyes open the entire time I was on it. I was too scared.”
As more and more refugees arrived on Midway, the ship’s flight deck became increasingly crowded with people and helicopters. The evacuation effort became even more complicated when a small military observation plane known as a Bird Dog suddenly appeared over the carrier.
Maj. Buang-Ly, a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, crammed his wife and five small children into the two-seat Bird Dog in his attempt to escape. Coming under attack from enemy ground fire during takeoff, he still managed to fly out to sea searching for U.S. naval ships. Luckily, he found the Midway.
“When we realized Maj. Ly had his family on board, it was obvious he was going to attempt to land on Midway’s flight deck,” said Larry. “In order to make a ready deck for the Bird Dog, it was necessary to push a number of helicopters over the side.”
Midway’s crew was so impressed by Maj. Ly’s bravery and airmanship that they collected $10,000 for him and his family to help them relocate to Florida.
By the time the evacuation ending on April 30, nearly 3,100 refugees and Americans trapped in Saigon were safely flown to the Midway.
“I was so proud of our crew,” said Vern, who has been a Midway volunteer for 17 years. “While the operation was exhausting and confusing, nobody lost their life. It was a miracle.”
Even after 46 years, both Stephanie and Courtney remain extremely thankful to the Midway for helping their families escape to freedom.
“I still get chills thinking about the rescue operation,” said Courtney. “So many kind strangers on the ship bravely risked their lives for us. I’m forever indebted to them and proud to be an American.”
An 11-year volunteer for the Midway, Stephanie never takes for granted the new life and opportunities she was given in the United States.
“I’m very grateful to be accepted by my adopted country,” said Stephanie. “I volunteer for the Midway to show, in some small way, my appreciation and pay back for what it did for my family.”
Nearly half a century later, Operation Frequent Wind remains one of the largest military humanitarian evacuations and Midway played a critical role in the saving thousands of lives.
“The outstanding performance and kindness of Midway’s crew was remarkable,” said Larry.
An Operation Frequent Wind exhibit can be experienced at the USS Midway Museum.