A South Vietnamese pilot who, in 1969, was able to save his family by performing a daring feat of flying them on board an American transport plane after he had been shot down and captured. The pilot’s courage has since inspired the country’s national anthem.
The “major buong” is the story of a pilot who performed a daring feat to save his family. The pilot’s name was Major Buong, and he took off from Saigon in order to escape the North Vietnamese army that had taken over South Vietnam. Major Buong flew his plane into mountainous terrain with no visibility and landed safely on a river bed.
A South Vietnamese pilot making a high-risk landing on the Midway relied on the ship’s quick-thinking crew to rescue his family from catastrophe while his nation collapsed.
Maj. Buang-Ly of the South Vietnamese air force hijacked a little two-seat aircraft on the final full day of his country’s existence. Before getting into the pilot’s seat, he assisted his wife and their five children, aged 14 months to six years, into the backseat and storage compartment. While enemy ground fire whizzed by them, they took off and went out to sea.
The date was April 29, 1975, and the country was in turmoil. Although the 1973 Paris peace accord had technically ended the war, the North Vietnamese took advantage of their new strategic advantage when American combat troops departed the country. The lengthy conflict between North and South Vietnam came to a short halt before resuming its fierce combat.
The North Vietnamese Army took major sites in the Central Highlands in early 1975 and had taken regions along the coast by the end of March. The remaining American advisors, as well as many South Vietnamese families, started boarding American military and commercial transport flights in a frenzy.
Thousands of refugees were flown to hurriedly built camps in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island by these huge fixed-wing aircraft. Because at least seven of the 290 passengers had crawled into the wheel wells of the final aircraft out of Da Nang, a civilian Boeing 727, it was unable to retract its landing gear in flight. North Vietnamese troops began pounding Saigon soon after.
During the final days of April 1975, UH-1 Huey and CH-47 Chinook helicopters land on the deck of the USS Midway, which was already a swarm of refugees fleeing Saigon. (Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum)
Buang and his family were stationed on Con Son Island, which is located 50 miles off the coast of South Vietnam and is home to one of the last South Vietnamese outposts. The island, which was mostly used as a prison camp, also featured a tiny airport. When Buang and his wife heard that North Vietnamese troops were closing in, they crammed as much of their belongings into the aircraft as they could and took off—with no plan for what they would do next.
The O-1 Bird Dog, a modified Cessna 170 tail dragger with fixed landing gear, was their small aircraft. Bird Dogs were ruggedly constructed and extremely agile aircraft that flew over South Vietnam’s terrain during the war, identifying enemy positions and marking them with white phosphorous rockets to direct artillery bombardment and airstrikes by the United States. The aircraft could take off and land on a dime, but their range was only around 500 miles when fully fueled—which Buang’s tank was not.
Buang faced tremendous difficulties as he tried to get the overcrowded aircraft off the ground. The Bird Dog was not intended to be used on the water. It lacked advanced navigation technology, life jackets, and the ability to safely ditch in the event of a disaster. Buang had never seen an aircraft carrier, much less landed on one—and to make things worse, this Bird Dog had no functioning radio since Buang had forgotten to pack a headset. Nonetheless, he understood that his family would be safer at sea, where the US Navy was in command, than on land, which was now under communist authority under Gen. Van Tien Dung.
After a half-hour flight, Buang saw a swarm of helicopters moving east in the distance. He had no idea they were filled with friendly evacuees at the time, but following them seemed like a smart idea. Buang subsequently said, “I was looking for a secure location.” “It made me believe there was something they could rely on out there.”
The aircraft carrier USS Midway had received orders to leave Naval Station Subic Bay in the Philippines on April 19, 10 days before the Buang family departed Con Son Island, to help evacuate the roughly 5,000 Americans remaining there, including diplomats, CIA agents, contractors, and a handful of Marines. As many friendly Vietnamese as possible would be evacuated by Midway and the rest of the 7th Fleet.
The aging ship had been in service since September 1945 and was now undergoing pierside repairs. The ship’s engineering plant had to be quickly rebuilt after being taken down for maintenance, and the ship set sail with fewer crew than usual. Midway offloaded half of its combat air wing’s fixed-wing planes at Subic Bay. When the ship arrived in the South China Sea, it was greeted by ten big Sikorsky H-53 helicopters—two HH-53s from the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron and eight CH-53s from the 21st Special Operations Squadron of the United States Air Force. Each of these choppers has the capacity to carry 55 people at a time.
Operation Frequent Wind would use an ad hoc fleet of helicopters and various sections of the 7th Fleet—a formidable array of combat vehicles—to carry out a major humanitarian operation, transporting and caring for thousands of migrants. During the journey, the carrier’s crew was busy preparing for the next job.
The crew of the Midway leads refugees to a location where they may get medical treatment. (Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum)
Most aviation operations from carriers like the USS Midway during the war were combat sorties: bombing, information collection, and combat air patrol. Noncombat logistical activities accounted for a modest portion of the flight deck’s activity on most days. The logistics teams often moved a few dozen people each day, perhaps bringing a new jet engine or other equipment aboard, and shipping mail by aircraft or helicopter.
A junior air transfer officer in charge of a crew of around a dozen sailors should be able to manage the load with ease. For Operation Frequent Wind, however, the whole ship and crew were committed to the mission. Senior enlisted sailors on the carrier led the rest of the crew through exercises intended to account for every conceivable issue.
After a one-hour, 15-minute helicopter trip from the mainland, former South Vietnamese Prime Minister and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, accompanied by Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, sought permission to land on the Midway on April 29. Their landing marked the start of Operation Frequent Wind to the carrier’s commanders. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger eventually issued the order to evacuate American diplomats about 11 a.m. that morning. Because the DJ couldn’t locate the more well-known Bing Crosby version, an American radio station broadcasted the secret signal: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and climbing,” followed by Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “White Christmas.” The signal instructed evacuees in Saigon to go to pre-determined extraction points, board buses, and travel to the airport.
Many enterprising Vietnamese hijacked whatever aircraft they could to flee to safety as the formal evacuation began. The following day, The New York Times reported that “at least 74 aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force, including approximately 30 F-5 fighters, poured into the U Taphao air base in southern Thailand without notice from South Vietnam.” “The pilots and passengers—roughly 2,000 people—requested asylum,” according to the report, and additional aircraft continued to arrive. Thai authorities stated their desire to return the plane to South Vietnam, but this proved impossible when the South was incorporated by an united Vietnam led by Hanoi’s communists.
On the flight deck of the USS Midway, more choppers started to arrive. The ship’s Marines and sergeant at arms inspected the newcomers for contraband and weapons, seizing handguns and wads of worthless South Vietnamese currency, which they tossed overboard. They then assisted people onto the ship’s command structure, known as “the island,” on the starboard side, where crew men provided food and basic medical care. All but around 80 of the most critical cases were transported by helicopter to other ships and dispersed across the fleet the following day, a procedure that lasted well into the next day.
Young, rugged sailors, accustomed to handling bombs, chains, and fuel lines under the boom of jet engines, suddenly dedicated their time to caring for befuddled parents, terrified children, the elderly, and the ill. Choppers and queues of men and women carrying bags and children clogged the flight deck. As attempts to assist hundreds of migrants proceeded below decks, the hangar bay ran out of space for additional planes.
Capt. Lawrence Chambers, the first African-American carrier commander and just the second to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1952, commanded the Midway. Chambers had only been in charge for a few weeks when he reported onboard the carrier in January 1975. “A flight deck is a dangerous operation under normal conditions,” he said in a televised interview 35 years later, as he watched from his position on the bridge, just above the action. And you simply hold your breath when you see small toddlers and women carrying infants, and aircraft and helicopters take off and land.”
Cmdr. Vern Jumper, the ship’s air boss, watched the weather conditions from his perch five floors above the flight deck in the Primary Flight Control room. Jumper was in charge of all flight operations, including any aircraft flying close to the ship, all activity on the flight deck, and all work in the hangar bay. Rain was pouring from a 500-foot cloud ceiling, there was 15 knots (17 mph) of wind on the deck, and visibility was 5 miles. However, the waves remained reasonably calm, which meant that the deck, although sometimes slippery with water, did not pitch.
As helicopters approached, air traffic controllers on board and the landing signals team on deck utilized whatever measures were required to keep them in order. The 10 H-53 helicopters that were part in the operation communicated flawlessly. They would land, unload, refuel, and return to Saigon many times. An further 45 UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters arrived from the mainland by mid-afternoon. The majority of the passengers were unable to connect with the ship through radio. Jumper said 35 years later, “We were utilizing hand signals to regulate where the pilots landed on the flight deck.” Signal flags and colored signal lights were also used by sailors and aircrews to communicate—red meant don’t land; green meant go ahead and land.
Every pilot kept track of his fuel and anxiously awaited his turn. Cmdr. Pete Theodorelos, Jumper’s assistant, reported 26 helicopters circling the carrier at one time, as sailors helped waves of incoming passengers. When a chopper’s rotors stopped spinning, sailors used tiny rectangular tractors or physical force to push it away from the action. They were able to recover all of the approaching planes by clustering them close together. Although no one had to ditch close to the carrier, the flight deck quickly became overcrowded.
Spotters on the carrier saw a small two-seat Cessna come into view towards the conclusion of that chaotic day. They counted at least four individuals aboard the aircraft, which had South Vietnamese insignia, using binoculars. With its landing lights turned on, the Bird Dog started circling above. The pilot rocked the plane’s wings on a regular basis. Jumper and Theodorelos in the ship’s tower were joined by a Vietnamese interpreter who was hurried to Primary Flight Control, but efforts to radio the aircraft were greeted with static. Chambers contacted task force commander Adm. William Harris, who was at his combat station below deck, from the bridge.
Chambers subsequently recounted, “The admiral instructed me to tell the Bird Dog to ditch.” A helicopter may be sent to drop swimmers into the sea and rescue the passengers. Other pilots flying choppers near the 7th Fleet were ditching their planes in the water. They hovered above the fleet’s smaller ships, like as destroyers and supply boats, to drop people off. When all passengers had safely exited a helicopter, the pilot would move away and direct the aircraft into open sea. He’d leap clear of the rotors and into the water at the last possible time, then swim for the closest vessel.
The fixed-wing Bird Dog, on the other hand, couldn’t hover to drop off its passengers, and the plane’s fixed landing gear would force it to turn over as soon as the wheels hit the water. Only a well-trained crew member would get it out alive if they were securely strapped in. If the aircraft was abandoned, the remainder of the passengers stood a little chance of survival.
Chambers said, “My judgment told me that if I didn’t give him a chance to land, he was going to smash it on the deck.”
The pilot threw three paper notes from the aircraft as the Bird Dog circled, but they blew over the side before the ship’s crew could get them. On the following pass, he placed a fourth letter inside the leather holster of his gun to weigh it down, and sailors raced to seize the bundle as soon as it touched the deck. They saw a scrawled note on a crumpled map of South Vietnam that said, “Can you move these helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly another hour, we have enough time to move.” Please come to my aid. Major Buang’s family consists of his wife and five children.
The message was immediately transmitted to the bridge, where Chambers was on the phone with Jumper discussing the situation. Despite the admiral’s insistence, Chambers determined to do whatever it took to allow the Bird Dog to land, even if it meant dumping millions of dollars’ worth of equipment over the side and potentially losing his command.
“Vern, give me a ready deck,” Chambers said into the phone. Jumper requested the assistance of all available crew members and volunteers in preparing the angled flight deck for the Cessna. Chambers instructed his chief engineer to shift the ship’s electric load to the emergency diesel engines and generate steam for 25 knots while six boilers were down for repair (29 mph).
Buang’s aircraft was being held down by sailors who raced to the deck. His youngest kid, his wife, circled and climed out. The other kids followed suit. (Photo courtesy of the USS Midway Museum)
To prepare for a fixed-wing landing, the skipper rotated his ship towards the wind. Firefighters prepared their hoses and put on fire-resistant gear. Because the Bird Dog lacked a tail hook, the four landing wires that usually spanned the runway were removed. Three Hueys and one Chinook were heaved over the side by the rest of the crew. The empty choppers nosed up, turned, and plummeted backward into the water with huge splashes as their skids went over the flight deck’s edge.
Five additional Huey pilots took advantage of the cleared runway to land and unload their passengers almost immediately. Chambers ordered the helicopters to be thrown overboard as well, assuming he would be court martialed. He subsequently told interviewers that he turned away from the activity to avoid witnessing how many people were thrown into the water since he anticipated to be deposed by prosecutors. Jumper also stated in the same interview that he had no idea how many helicopters had gone overboard.
As the ship’s speed rose, it shook and moaned. The green light signaled Jumper to land. Buang conducted two practice runs over the ship to gain a feel for the approach, while interpreters warned him of the hazardous downdrafts that occur naturally behind the ship’s fantail in English and Vietnamese. The crew could only wait for an answer, praying that he would have enough power to fly through the turbulence.
Major Buang and his family are led over the deck of the USS Midway by a Marine Security Guard in one of the most dramatic scenes of operation Frequent Wind. (Getty Images/PhotoQuest)
Buang dropped the Bird Dog’s flaps and approached at 60 knots in a shallow descent (69 mph). The small aircraft gradually caught up with the ship, which provided an estimated 40 knots (46 mph) of headwind to assist the landing. It flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-
Hundreds of sailors rushed toward the plane, hoping to catch it before its speed carried it over the edge, but the Bird Dog remained still. While Buang and his wife, who was carrying their youngest kid, clambered out of the cockpit, a jumble of squadron personnel and ship’s company weighted the aircraft down with their bodies. The other four youngsters fell out as he pushed the seat forward. While the family went inside the ship’s island, cheers broke out and sailors clapped.
In all, 71 American helicopters conducted 662 missions from Saigon to the ships of the 7th Fleet, saving almost 7,800 individuals. From the beginning of the mission on April 29 until 9 a.m. on April 30, the ten Air Force H-53s made four round flights from Midway to Saigon, rescuing more than 1,400 people. South Vietnamese Gen. Duong Van Minh surrendered Saigon to North Vietnamese Col. Bui Tin three hours later, thus ending the war and the country of South Vietnam.
The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida currently houses the Bird Dog Buang-Ly that flew that day. Chambers retained his position as commander of the aircraft carrier and was subsequently promoted to rear admiral before retiring in 1984. Chambers ordered the helicopters overboard, and no one was punished for the estimated $10 million loss. The crew of the USS Midway raised funds to assist the Buang family, who were among the estimated 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who ultimately resettled in the United States. All seven have become naturalized citizens of the United States.
Paul X. Rutz is a freelance writer and illustrator. He served on the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy after graduating from the US Naval Academy in 2001.
Watch This Video-
The “why did u.s. dump helicopters in vietnam” is a question that many people have asked as the United States of America has been involved in a war with Vietnam for decades. The answer to this question is not clear, but one pilot from South Vietnam had a daring feat to save his family and others.
Frequently Asked Questions
Has a civilian plane ever landed on an aircraft carrier?
No. Aircraft carriers are too small to accommodate civilian planes, and also tend to be located in remote areas that would make takeoff and landing difficult for aircrafts
Was Operation Frequent Wind a success?
A: Operation Frequent Wind was a success in that it succeeded in eliminating the leadership of North Vietnam and preparing South Vietnam for future military operations.
How long did Operation Frequent Wind last?
A: Operation Frequent Wind lasted from the time of Americas entry into World War II until it was over in October 1945.
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