SATURDAY, MAY 1, 2010  
Hundreds who fled Saigon visit ship 35 years later
SAN DIEGO The USS Midway may be made of iron and steel, but deep down it was "all heart."

Admiral Larry Chambers, who was captain of the naval ship that rescued 3,000 Vietnamese during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, choked up as he addressed a packed flight deck aboard the same ship Friday afternoon.
Fleeing the fall of Saigon in 1975, Bung Lee piloted a small fixed-wing aircraft onto the deck of the Midway with the help of air boss Vern Jumper. The two met for the first time since 1975 at Friday's anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind, the humanitarian mission to rescue more than 3000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing Saigon.
Todd Jensen still has the Vietnamese aviator's patch he has kept from Operation Frequent Wind.
Adm. Larry Chambers was captain of the USS Midway during the rescue operation.
About the Midway
The USS Midway was one of America's longest serving aircraft carriers and was first commissioned at the end of World War II. More than 225,000 sailors have served on board. Today, the USS Midway Museum in San Diego features more than 60 exhibits, a collection of 25 restored aircraft and three aircraft
fight simulators. Information:


The colorful, patriotic and emotional ceremony commemorated the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in American history and the event that marked the end of the Vietnam War. It also marked the opening of a Little Saigon exhibit on the ship that honors the Midway's historical mission, the sailors who made it all possible and the refugees who chose freedom and democracy over what they considered an oppressive communist regime.

As he faced thousands of Vietnamese Americans Friday, hundreds of whom he and his young crew had helped rescue from Saigon 35 years ago, Chambers said it was the never-say-die group of teenagers on the Midway who were the heart and core of Operation Frequent Wind.

"These were kids who had no idea that they were doing something amazing and historical," Chambers said.

The Midway was also the ship that rescued South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung Lee, who took off from Saigon in a Cessna Bird Dog with his wife and five children ages 14 months to 6 years. Lee, who lives in Florida with his family, attended the event with his wife, Van Lee.

Chambers and Air Boss Vern Jumper said at the event that they believe Lee is the "bravest man in the world."

Lee circled the air space over the ship as he dropped notes on board asking for help. Chambers said that as he looked up to the sky, he could see that Lee was in trouble.

"He dropped three notes," Chambers recalled. "Two went over to the side. The third one landed on the deck."

The note said in English that he was there with his family and landing on the Midway was his only chance of survival. He had fuel in the plane to last him an hour, but land was an hour and a half away.

"When a man has the courage to put his family in a plane and make a daring escape like that, you have to have the heart to let him in," Chambers said, explaining his decision to allow Lee to land on the deck.

Lee and his wife had an emotional reunion with Chambers and Jumper.

"Here was a man who got on the plane not knowing where he was going or what was going to happen all their possessions wrapped up in a pillowcase," Jumper said.

April 30, 1975 was not only hard on refugees who had lost their country, but on American soldiers who were dealing with the fact that the war had been lost.

"There was a lot of heartache all over the place," Jumper said. "But we were able to save these thousands. We were fortunate enough to save them."

The former refugees, who are now U.S. citizens, say they remember the evacuation and escape as if it were yesterday. Dzung Le, 53, a San Diego resident, said he was taken aboard a helicopter with his four sisters, but got separated from his parents and another sister. He was 18 at the time.

"The helicopters were huge and noisy," he said. "It was frightening for us because we had no idea what was going to happen. We were leaving our home."

As the helicopter took off over Saigon, Le said he felt an overpowering sadness engulf him. But it was soon replaced with relief and happiness that he was headed in the path of freedom.

Le and his sisters reunited with the rest of their family members in Guam.

There were many others, such as Minh Nguyen and Chinh Dinh, high school buddies, who were part of the Midway evacuation but did not reunite with their respective families for a decade. Both were 17 and got on the helicopter to the Midway by accident as they "wandered away."

"What I remember about being on the Midway was being welcomed with blankets and donuts," said Minh Nguyen of Anaheim. "They made us feel welcome and comfortable."

Dinh said as he looked down from the helicopter, the Midway seemed like an island surrounded by dark waters to him.

"I was a 17-year-old who hadn't seen anything before," the Garden Grove resident said with a laugh. "It was quite an experience. Today is emotional because we get to see the result of that. It's a great day to see that we are all free today."

The day was equally heartwarming for sailors who were on board the Midway on April 29 and April 30, 1975.

Raphael Vila was 19 when Lee's Cessna made its dramatic landing.

"I was one of the people on deck who had to move the helicopters so (Lee) could make a landing," he said. "It was funny because he was throwing down these papers at us asking for help. At first, we thought he was throwing grenades at us."

Todd Jensen, an 18-year-old airman at the time, remembers clearing the helicopters and then helping Lee's plane land by holding on to its wings. Jensen brought his two grandsons to Friday's event. It was their birthday present, he said.

Brian Toro, 9, said he is proud of what his grandpa did.

"I think it's amazing that he saved a lot of people's lives," he said.

Richard Bui of Riverside and Dai Nguyen of Santa Ana recalled how as helicopter pilots and South Vietnamese airmen they brought refugees by the dozens to the Midway.

"It was really hard because we had to land the helicopters as the (Midway) was moving," Bui said.

Dai Nguyen remembers being "extremely emotional."

"Every year, around this time, the memories come flooding back," he said. "It's really tough when you lose your country."

Many such as Dan Le, who was only 14 when he got on the Midway, have happy memories of being on the ship.

"I just couldn't believe I was on the Midway," said Le, now 49 and living in Toronto, Canada. "I was scared knowing nothing was in my hands. But it was just amazing being a part of it and escaping to freedom."

Le said he made the trip to San Diego just for this event.

"It's very special," he said. "To me, this is like coming home."


Refugees 'come home' to the Midway after 35 years
By Deepa Bharath

Operation Frequent Wind
The largest helicopter evacuation in American history occurred during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. In 19 hours, 81 helicopters lifted nearly 6,000 Vietnamese and refugees to the USS Midway. The final evacuation lifted off from the U.S. Embassy at 7:53 a.m. on April 30, 1975.
Active duty sailor   Minh Nguyen   Chinh Dinh