Refugees ‘come home’ to the Midway after 35 years

SAN DIEGO – The USS Midway may be made of iron and steel, but deep down it was “all heart.”

Flags of the U.S. as well as the Republic of Vietnam are waived by attendees of the 35th Anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind on board the USS Midway, which is now permanently docked in San Diego. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Flags of the U.S. as well as the Republic of Vietnam are waived by attendees of the 35th Anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind on board the USS Midway, which is now permanently docked in San Diego. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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.

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.”

Todd Jensen a sailor aboard the USS Midway in 1975 during Operation Frequent Wind, compares a patch he took as a souvenir in 1975 with patches worn by former Republic of Vietnam aviators and refugees Richard Bui, right, and Dai Nguyen, center. Jensen helped push helicopters landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier overboard after bringing refugees on board. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Todd Jensen a sailor aboard the USS Midway in 1975 during Operation Frequent Wind, compares a patch he took as a souvenir in 1975 with patches worn by former Republic of Vietnam aviators and refugees Richard Bui, right, and Dai Nguyen, center. Jensen helped push helicopters landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier overboard after bringing refugees on board. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The Vietnamese aviator's patch taken by Todd Jensen as a souvenir when he was a sailor on board the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The Vietnamese aviator’s patch taken by Todd Jensen as a souvenir when he was a sailor on board the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The festivities begin on the flight deck of the USS Midway for the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind Friday. Former sailors as well as refugees rescued during the 1975 fall of Saigon were on hand for the celebration. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

The festivities begin on the flight deck of the USS Midway for the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind Friday. Former sailors as well as refugees rescued during the 1975 fall of Saigon were on hand for the celebration. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Admiral Larry Chambers, captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind to rescue Vietnamese escaping the fall of Saigon in 1975, waves to the crowd during the 35th anniversary celebration aboard the Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Admiral Larry Chambers, captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind to rescue Vietnamese escaping the fall of Saigon in 1975, waves to the crowd during the 35th anniversary celebration aboard the Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Admiral Larry Chambers, ret., looks skyward as a replica of the small aircraft flown by Bung Lee flies over the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind Friday. Chambers was captain of the USS Midway when Lee landed on the deck of the USS Midway during the fall of Saigon. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Admiral Larry Chambers, ret., looks skyward as a replica of the small aircraft flown by Bung Lee flies over the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind Friday. Chambers was captain of the USS Midway when Lee landed on the deck of the USS Midway during the fall of Saigon. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Flag girls perform to the music as festivities begin for the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind on the flight deck of the USS Midway Friday. The operation was a humanitarian mission to rescue more than 3000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing Vietnam in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Flag girls perform to the music as festivities begin for the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind on the flight deck of the USS Midway Friday. The operation was a humanitarian mission to rescue more than 3000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing Vietnam in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

A sailor plays Taps as a memorial to those that died while trying to flee Vietnam in 1975. It was part of the 35th anniversary ceremonies for Operation Frequent Wind on board the USS Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

A sailor plays Taps as a memorial to those that died while trying to flee Vietnam in 1975. It was part of the 35th anniversary ceremonies for Operation Frequent Wind on board the USS Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

An Vietnamese attendee of the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind records the festivities Friday aboard the USS Midway. The Midway helped rescue over 3000 Vietnamese that were trying to escape the fall of Saigon in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

An Vietnamese attendee of the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind records the festivities Friday aboard the USS Midway. The Midway helped rescue over 3000 Vietnamese that were trying to escape the fall of Saigon in 1975. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Vietnamese tour a helicopter similar to the ones that rescued them during the 1975 fall of Saigon from the USS Midway. This was part of the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind on the flight deck of the Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Vietnamese tour a helicopter similar to the ones that rescued them during the 1975 fall of Saigon from the USS Midway. This was part of the 35th anniversary celebration of Operation Frequent Wind on the flight deck of the Midway Friday. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Richard Bui of Riverside, a former aviator for the Republic of Vietnam, piloted one of the helicopters that landed on the USS MIdway on April 30, 1975. The biggest challenge, Bui said, was to land the helicopter as the ship was moving in the water. "I'll never forget that day," he said. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Richard Bui of Riverside, a former aviator for the Republic of Vietnam, piloted one of the helicopters that landed on the USS MIdway on April 30, 1975. The biggest challenge, Bui said, was to land the helicopter as the ship was moving in the water. “I’ll never forget that day,” he said. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Dai Nguyen, a former aviator for the Republic of Vietnam, piloted a helicopter bearing refugees onto the USS Midway on April 30, 1975. Nguyen says he remembers being overwhelmed by emotions as he piloted the aircraft knowing that he had "lost his country." "It was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life," the Santa Ana resident said. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Dai Nguyen, a former aviator for the Republic of Vietnam, piloted a helicopter bearing refugees onto the USS Midway on April 30, 1975. Nguyen says he remembers being overwhelmed by emotions as he piloted the aircraft knowing that he had “lost his country.” “It was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life,” the Santa Ana resident said. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Todd Jensen was an 18-year-old airman on board the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He was one of the crew on deck that helped move the helicopters so Bung Lee could land his Cessna on the Midway. He remembers holding the wings of the aircraft as it made a slow landing on the Navy ship. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Todd Jensen was an 18-year-old airman on board the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He was one of the crew on deck that helped move the helicopters so Bung Lee could land his Cessna on the Midway. He remembers holding the wings of the aircraft as it made a slow landing on the Navy ship. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Chinh Dinh was only 17 when he was rescued by the USS Midway. He and his high school buddy accidentally stumbled into the line headed for the choppers that took them to the Navy ship. Dinh is a resident of Garden Grove. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Chinh Dinh was only 17 when he was rescued by the USS Midway. He and his high school buddy accidentally stumbled into the line headed for the choppers that took them to the Navy ship. Dinh is a resident of Garden Grove. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Minh Nguyen of Anaheim was 17 when he was rescued by the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind. His favorite memory of time on the ship was when sailors aboard tried to comfort frightened refugees with blankets and donuts. "All I have to say to these soldiers is 'Thank you for helping us on this journey to freedom.'" TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Minh Nguyen of Anaheim was 17 when he was rescued by the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind. His favorite memory of time on the ship was when sailors aboard tried to comfort frightened refugees with blankets and donuts. “All I have to say to these soldiers is ‘Thank you for helping us on this journey to freedom.'” TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Retired Admiral Larry Chambers was captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He says allowing Bung Lee to land his Cessna on the Midway was an easy decision. "(Lee) is the bravest man that I know," he says. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Retired Admiral Larry Chambers was captain of the USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He says allowing Bung Lee to land his Cessna on the Midway was an easy decision. “(Lee) is the bravest man that I know,” he says. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Dan Le was a 14-year-old boy when he was rescued during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He said coming back to the USS Midway was like "coming home." Le came to Friday's event on the Midway from Toronto, Canada. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Dan Le was a 14-year-old boy when he was rescued during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. He said coming back to the USS Midway was like “coming home.” Le came to Friday’s event on the Midway from Toronto, Canada. TEXT BY DEEPA BHARATH, PHOTO BY PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

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. PAUL RODRIGUEZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or dbharath@ocregister.com

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/midway-246797-lee-chambers.html

Be the first to start a conversation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: