Chaos and Tragedy in a “Post-War” Zone: Last Days in Vietnam

October 2, 2014

Standing on the flight deck of the USS Midway (CV-41) in late April 1975 amongst the 10 heavy-lift helicopters of USAF 56th Special Operations Wing and the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, the sailors could see the fireworks of the rockets launched by the North Vietnamese Army in the area of Vung Tau, Republic of Vietnam. Amassed off the coast was the largest naval armada since the 1964 escalation of the war after the Gulf of Tonkin incident as the carriers launched aircraft from Yankee and Dixie Station to bomb targets in North Vietnam and support U.S. and South Vietnam forces fighting in the south. Operation Frequent Wind, as the Pentagon would name it, followed a smaller evacuation, Operation Eagle Pull, of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 12, 1975.

As 1975 opened, the Vietnam War had slipped from the memory of many Americans as an era of history to be forgotten. The war was over, the POWs were home and President Ford had offered amnesty to draft dodgers. As the USS Midway headed south from Japan, the movements of the Regular Army of North Vietnam were plotted on large wall maps as more and more of South Vietnam, the towns and cities that were once the headlines in U.S. newspapers, fell to the communist forces. Would the bombing resume? Would the United States send the Marines back? These questions ran through the minds of the sailors, airmen and Marines onboard the ships of the amassing armada as well as the policymakers in Washington and Saigon.

This is the complex backdrop behind the events depicted in the recently released film, Last Days in Vietnam. Director Rory Kennedy opens the film by setting the stage for what would occur in the spring of 1975. Politically, President Nixon, whose administration had ended the war in 1973, was out of office and in disgrace, Congress and the White House were at odds because Congress refused President Ford’s request for funds to rearm South Vietnam and the majority of Americans were happy the war was over. In Saigon, while U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin operated as if the cavalry was on the horizon, State Department officers, defense attachés and C.I.A officers conducted an unofficial “black operation” to get their South Vietnam partners and their families out of the country. Their lives would be in peril if they fell into the North’s hands.

Original footage and interviews with both Vietnamese and Americans show the emotions of a people losing their homeland and of the U.S. officials witnessing the abandonment of a country. Those officials include: Stuart Herrington, a U.S. Army captain assigned to the Defense Attaché’s Office who was forced to make the decision about “who goes and who stays;” Frank Snepp, a young C.I.A. officer advising the ambassador to shutter the diplomatic mission in Vietnam; and Navy SEAL Rick Armitage and South Vietnamese Navy Captain Kiem Do, who tried to organize the departure of the South Vietnamese Navy before falling into the North’s hands.

The United States tried to save its Vietnamese friends but left thousands behind. In his book Irreparable Harm, Snepp quotes a fellow C.I.A. officer talking to a journalist onboard a ship fleeing Saigon: “So, how do you crawl out of country standing up?” A fitting line to describe America’s departure from a country that was ravaged by war for hundreds of years by China, France and lastly the United States.

I went to see the film hoping to see footage of the USS Midway – her aircraft shot down the first and last North Vietnamese MiGs of the war – and the other carriers that were critical to the evacuation. A first for the Navy was the reconfiguration of two attack aircraft carriers, the USS Midway and the USS Hancock, to act as helicopter carriers along with the USS Okinawa LPH-3, the only helicopter amphibious assault ship assigned to the task force. The film barely mentions the participation of the aircraft carriers, which acted as the primary landing platform not only for the U.S. helos but also for the multitude of Vietnamese Air Force and Air America (C.I.A.) helos.

One of the most spectacular rescues of the evacuation occurred on the flight deck of the USS Midway. Vietnamese Air Force Maj. Bung Lee (Buang-Ly) flew his family, wife and five children to the USS Midway in a two-seat O-1 Bird Dog observation plane. Circling the ship he threw a page torn from his flight manual with a note in the margins, “Please rescue me. Major Buang, wife and 5 child (sic).” Capt. Laurence Chambers ordered the flight deck crew to push helos over the stern to clear the flight deck. The major made his first and only carrier landing.

The USS Midway sailed from Vietnam, picking up refugees on a sinking junk somewhere off the coast, then delivering a flight deck full of Vietnamese and Air America aircraft to Guam. Before returning to Naval Air Station Cubi Point, the Midway was dispatched to support the rescue of the crew of the SS Mayaguez, a U.S. freighter captured by Khmer Rouge pirates off Cambodia.

Next April will be the 40th anniversary of the operation. Watching the film made me think again of the all the follow-on effects and long-term consequences of any war. It made me think also of the refugees who came to the U.S. and of their accomplishments. In 2009, Commander Hung B. Le, son of a Vietnamese navy officer and rescued by the  USS Barbour County (LST-1195) at sea after the air evacuation ended, commanded the USS Lassen (DDG-82) as she sailed into Da Nang. Maj. Bung Lee and his family, now retired Rear Admiral Chambers and Commander Vern Jumper, the USS Midway’s Air Boss who managed the flight deck that hectic day, attended the 35th anniversary celebration held on the Midway, now a museum in San Diego. Recently, Brigadier General Viet Luong, whose family left Vietnam in the “black operation” the day before the official evacuation, became the U.S. Army’s first Vietnamese general officer.

These accomplishments, as great as they are, are overshadowed by the cost of the war to the United States and Vietnam and by the loss of those left behind.

 

David A. Mattingly served onboard the USS MIDWAY (CV-41) from 1974-1977. He is retired from the U.S. Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer and is now a consultant on National Security issues.

 

Photo credit: manhhai