Memory of the aircraft carrier Midway, 1975

Trần Thị Khánh Vân-theo trang web batkhuat.net

After all these years I returned to visit my old friend – The USS Midway Aircraft Carrier!  Its defiant grandeur was calling me back as if it wanted me to embark on an unsettling journey to the past. 

Just like an old general whose life is decorated with glorious medals and wartime achievements – the USS Midway has reigned over battles in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and participated in the liberation of Kuwait.  With countless injuries and innumerable repairs, this old aircraft carrier is now decommissioned.  She has been retired to San Diego Bay and now nests in the warm sunshine and soothing waters of southern California.

The USS Midway brings incredible nostalgia to my heart.  I wish to sit down next to my old friend and ask her to tell me the stories from her past…..   With her deep voice she slowly recalls one of the stories that I treasure the most – the story that had happened to me some 30 years ago this very month of April.

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In January 1973, the US Government and the North Vietnamese Communists had signed a so-called “Vietnamization” Agreement in Paris.  The infamous “Agreement” intended, in American eyes, to bring an honorable peace in Viet Nam – a cease-fire and a troop withdrawal.   Most of the American troops, officers and office employees were to be replaced by the Vietnamese.  A year before that I was lucky to be selected among 12 other young Vietnamese women who had to go through 10 months of business and government office procedures training.  We were to become administrative assistants / executive secretaries.  Most importantly, we needed to replace the American secretaries in all of the USAID offices.

By the end of 1973, I officially began to work for USAID and was assigned to a project called “Post War Economic Development”.  I was extremely excited since I would be directly involved in the operations of re-building all the infrastructures of Vietnam – roads, bridges, and highways.

I worked devotedly and energetically thinking that we were already at the end of the war.  My beloved country, Vietnam, would have peace again after more than a half century of war.  I was too naïve in believing that I would be a contributing factor to the efforts of rebuilding my country.   I was in luck!

In 1975 the situation in Indochina began to change rapidly, started with the withdrawal of the American troops from Cambodia and Laos.  In the first few months of 1975, we had witnessed the Cambodian people, in haste and in chaos, fleeing their country.  We, the people of South Vietnam, felt badly for our neighbors but we also felt somewhat confident that the South Vietnamese troops still could still defend us and the Americans would never betray us.  Little did we know but in just a few months the South Vietnamese people would begin to experience the same fate.  From Quang Tri, Da-nang, Hue, Nha Trang, Saigon, Can Tho as well as in all other coastal cities, people were fleeing and abandoning their homes.   The people of South Vietnam got sucked into the whirlwinds of chaos and fear of the Communists.

In the midst of February 1975, thousands and thousands had made their way from the northern most cities of South Vietnam to the central cities of Da-Nang, Hue and Nha-Trang.  People clung on to the helicopters and boats and ferries in the rivers and in the oceans to come down to Saigon as well as to the southern most cities.   The Viet Cong were coming!  The enemy was coming!

The people in Saigon were in the same fear.  Everyone was trying to find a way out of the country.  My family found itself in the same situation.  My brothers were in Army, Navy, and Air Force.  Before 1954, my father had been in prison for several years and tortured by the North Vietnamese communists.  In our family, he was the most worried and terrified.  We also had to run – but where?

Since I was an employee of the US Government, my family and I were on a list of those who would be evacuated by the Americans.  We were told to wait for our time to leave.  A few days earlier, we each prepared by packing a few bags and a little money. Some of my co-workers had already left the country. Those of us remaining were anxiously waiting – waiting for our time.  At night we could not sleep for fear that the South would collapse at any time and that we would be left behind forever.  At times in the middle of the night, I could hear deep sighs coming from my mother, my father, and my brothers and sisters.   Every one was silent yet troubled and worried.  Those were the emotions of the known present and of the unknown future.   Should we stay?  Should we leave?

The morning of April 27th I returned to my office to wait for instructions and, hopefully, news of being evacuated.  Most of the Americans had left the country.

A few Vietnamese employees and I remained behind to shred all “Classified” documents.  At about 5:00 p.m. we suddenly heard a few loud noises.  Something sounded like bombings.  All of us became terrified.  We ran down to the basement of the building and hid there for several hours.  My girl friends and co-workers Chau thuan Anh and Pham thi My and an American officer, Mr. Ronald Pollock also hid with me.  (Ron Pollock was a direct boss of my friend Trinh thi Phuong Dung who had left Viet Nam earlier that day)

Listening to the radio news we learned that the near-by Presidential Palace had been bombed.  A 24-hour curfew was also declared and anyone found on the street without proper identifications and without duty papers would be shot.   There would be no way for me to make it home that night.

At about midnight Ron urged us to go with him in his car to a nearby American complex where he lived.  Since his car had a diplomat’s license plate, he hoped we could avoid security checks and get us safely to his compound.  The streets were all very dark and there was no sign of disorder whatsoever!   We continued in Ron’s car to his complex.

During the night we all went up to the complex roof top and witnessed the fall of Saigon.  North Vietnamese rockets were firing every where.  Fires and smoke were imprints on the dark sky.  We could see the terrible scenes of a dying city.  Several big fires were spotted coming from the Tan Son Nhut Airbase where we were  supposed to be taken for our evacuation.  Tears welled in my eyes.  I cried silently.  The hope of escape for my family and for me had vanished.  All I wanted at that moment was for the morning to come quickly so that I could find a way home.

Early the following morning Ron told us to wait for a few more hours since the curfew was still in effect.  We all worried about our fate. We did not know what to do.  I remember Ron had made a phone call to someone and then he told us the bad news.  The situation was getting worse.  Remember, he was one of the people left behind – just like us.

Patiently and slowly he told us to find our own way home.  The other option was to once again get into his car with him and he would attempt to take us to one of the evacuation locations.  Ron seemed confident that everything would be all right and that he could take us to a safe place.  I also remembered seeing 4 other young women who perhaps had been there the night before.  They must have also worked for the USAID Agency.  I realized at that instant that our American boss was so very kind and unselfish.  He was not a bit worried about himself.  He was ready to take care of us – the Vietnamese young women who had no relationship with him.

All seven of us decided to go with Ron.  My friend Chau thuan Anh was my age and Pham thi My was a few years older.   I don’t remember names and ages of the other 4 young women.   We all climbed into Ron’s car and he began to drive us to the main streets.  Chaos, beyond our wildest imagination, was everywhere.  People were running in every direction.   Traffic was at its worst.   Roads in all directions were blocked by barricades.  No one seemed to observe the curfew.

Some people saw our diplomat’s car with an American driver.  Several people angrily pointed at us and threw rocks, hitting the car.  We were  all frightened and nestled against each other.  Ron continued to keep his calm as he managed to weave through the waves of mad people running for their lives.

We arrived at the US Embassy.  There were several US Marines as well as helicopters on the rooftop.  A few US Marines were on the walls of the closed gates.  There were thousands of Vietnamese outside of the gate.  People were screaming, hustling and crying.  They all tried to push each other aside for the chance to get inside.  I saw that some people were being hoisted by the Marines to get inside the gate.

“No chance for us,” Ron said.  He decided to go to the next location. Where it was I can’t remember but the horror I shall never forget.  There was a small building complex with a very small landing roof top that was just big enough for a small helicopter.  A helicopter was already waiting.  I could see a string of people climbing and pushing each other upward to get to the helicopter.  Ron again decided to leave that place.  Later on, when I read the newspapers, they had captured the picture of the exact scene that I had witnessed.  That scene of desperation was repeatedly shown on TV, in history books and documentaries about the end of the war.

The third location was empty when we arrived.  Ron said he believed the Americans must have abandoned the location.  He did not know why.  He then said that the only way out was to drive to Tan Son Nhut Airbase where all the rockets were being fired. We had to make our way to the US Defense Attache Office (DAO Compound).   Ron tried to inch his way through the fleeing crowds.

As we got close to the Phi-Long Gate at the entrance to the Tan Son Nhut Airport, we were stopped by a Vietnamese soldier.  The solder pointed his gun at Ron and angrily said in his broken English, “You American.  You sold our country.  We hate you!”  I sobbed quietly.  The soldier was right!  The Americans had betrayed us.  They had run away and abandoned us when we were so close to winning the war.  Why?  I could find no answer.   My heart was full of  rage and hatred.

To our surprise, Ron gently apologized to the soldier.  The soldier refused to accept Ron’s apology and pushed the barricade tighter against us and completely blocked the entry into the airport.   Fury lined the soldier’s face.  Ron calmly made his U-turn and went a different way.  He began to cross a rough and treacherous abandoned field.  We went across the field under the firing rockets coming from all directions and through the burning fires.  Some rockets hit close to us.  As we got inside the airport, we saw destruction and chaos everywhere.  There were several abandoned jeeps, trucks, cars, and motorcycles on the streets.  Some were still on fire.  Some got hit by rockets and were turned upside down.  A few soldiers and pilots were running to their planes.  I did not know why, but I did not feel any fear at all.  It was as if I was in a dream — and this bad dream would go away when – and if — I woke up.

We finally arrived at the US  DAO Compound.  There were so many Chinook helicopters bringing hundreds US Marines to this location.  This must be a major evacuation spot. We were safe!  We were almost out of here!

Ron and all of us got out of the car.  The rockets were  still firing not too far from us.  We jumped into a shallow ditch near the gate trying to shield ourselves.  I saw several young Marines holding their guns, running about.  Some got behind the gate.  Some jumped into the same ditch with us.  They were all yelling at us and at each other.  I saw a very young Marine who had wet his pants  in fear – but he was still yelling and screaming like a trained soldier.

It seemed like a long time before the rockets would quiet down a little bit and we were ordered to run to the gate of the DAO Compound as fast as possible.  We all ran behind a young Marine who took us inside.  At that time I realized there were already hundreds or thousands of people already there.  There were all sorts of nationalities – American, French, British, German, Korean, etc.  All had come in with their families.  There were a lot of Vietnamese, too.  People had lined up in good order for what seemed like a mile.  The Marines surrounded us as if to protect us.  I saw hundreds of people’s belongings, luggage, and cameras all abandoned.  The Marines did not want the helicopters to carry too much weight.  I had nothing to leave behind.  All I had was the traditional Vietnamese dress (ao-dai) that I had put on the day before.

Finally my friends and I were allowed to get onto the Chinook — along with at least fifty more people.  All of us had to sit on the floor.  I was stricken with grief.  I did not say a word to my friends since I new everyone was burdened with the same sadness.

After half an hour of flying over the ocean I saw a gigantic ship in the distance.  As the Chinook got closer, Ron told us that giant ship was the USS Midway.  We landed on the middle of flight deck.  Ron had told us that the Midway belonged to the Seventh Fleet and had been commissioned to support the evacuation.  The Midway and other aircraft carriers had waited in the Pacific Ocean outside of the Vietnam coast for several days.  Later I learned that this was called “Operation Frequent Wind”.

As soon as we landed, I noticed hundreds of people, now evacuees, had arrived before us.  The scene was chaotic but not as hectic as the one at the US Embassy that we saw earlier that day.  Hundreds of Marines kept everyone in order.  We stood there for a long time waiting to be processed through and to be transferred to another cargo ship – at least that was what we were told.  For a moment, Ron disappeared. When he returned, he told us that he would like us to help the Midway Navy officers with the evacuation processing.  Since these officers did not know Vietnamese, they couldn’t pronounce our names and such and would get frustrated.  We agreed and started working immediately.

A row of processing tables had been set up by the side in the hangar bay. We sat by the US officers.  Our work was simply to write the name of each evacuee on a name tag and put it on their chest.  We also copied their names into the registration book for the Midway records.  At one point, the officers noticed that we were all hungry and thirsty.   They brought us some canned foods and sodas.  We continued to work until dark.

That night I realized that Ron had refused to be transferred by another helicopter to the Philippines.  He had decided to stay with us and become one of the evacuees who also fled the country full of destruction and a war full of betrayal.

At midnight all of us were exhausted.  An officer was ordered to show us our sleeping quarters.  We went up and down, out and about, and through the narrow corridors of the Midway carrier.  Finally we reached a place that looked like a reception room.  I noticed the room was beautifully carpeted and decorated with nice furniture like a fine living room.  This was the Admiral’s quarters!   Dumbfounded with shock, we stood for several minutes  until a middle-aged officer came in and approached us.  He shook our hands and introduced himself to us and Ron.  We learned that this officer – and gentleman – was the Commander himself.  (I wish I could remember his name.)   He told us to take it easy and offered us his bedroom for the night.  We shyly refused and asked if we could just use the living room sofas.   That was our first taste of American hospitality.

After more than 30 hours of agonizing and nerve-racking ordeal, we were all exhausted.  We were all so grateful for this sanctuary aboard the Midway.  My heart filled with gratitude and admiration for Ron and all his gentleness and kindness.

The evacuation went on all night.  The next morning there seemed there were more evacuees than the day before.  Later that day, some of the evacuees told us that a coalition government had been established.  Tran Van Huong and General Duong van Minh of South Vietnam would lead the reconciliation talks with the North Vietnamese Communists.  I didn’t care.  All I wanted was to find my family.  I had hoped that my family would find a way to get evacuated and join us later.   I kept those hopes alive for years.  Everytime I met some who knew them, I would always ask – but  there was no sign of them.  Some soldiers kindly gave me their addresses in the United States in the hope that maybe they could help me find them later.

The next morning Ron told us to finish our breakfast quickly.  He then took us back to the hangar to continue our work.  We found out that the evacuees we had processed the day before were already taken onto other Seventh Fleet vessels to make room for the flow of additional refugees.  That day we worked non-stop to process the crowds of refugees.  They were relieved to have found safety, even if they had lost their home.  Exhausted and hungry, they were all fed before being transferred to another vessel.

We spent another night in the Commander’s quarters. Ron woke us up early the following morning and told us to get ready for another day at work.  As we ate breakfast, we watched a large closed circuit TV.  To our astonishment, we saw hundreds of choppers being flown by Vietnamese pilots on the horizon and heading toward the Midway.  One by one they landed.  Sirens screamed as the crewmen frantically pushed aside a few aircraft on the flight-deck.  On the TV screen we saw dozens of crewmen and Marines running towards these choppers to help the pilots and their families.  Anxiety, hysteria and sorrow filled their faces.  As soon as a chopper landed and the passengers jumped off, another group of crewmen would run up to the chopper and push the chopper aside to make room for another one coming in.  In front of our eyes these choppers herded like dragonflies, all swarming on the Midway at the same time.   A four-seated CESSNA attempted to land.  The Midway refused to allow it as there were too many planes on deck and too little room to maneuver.   Left with no choice, the pilot ditched the  plane into the ocean.

Crewmen lowered a boat and pulled the Vietnamese pilot and his family from the water.  Later on, all the Vietnamese helicopters were dumped into the ocean.  Those who had made it to the ship could no longer leave.

That day was April 30, 1975.  We saw only Vietnamese pilots and their choppers arrive with their families.  They also told me that the new coalition government had been forced to surrender to the North Vietnamese Army and Saigon was in the tornado of chaos and everything was total madness.

I did not remember what time we went to lunch.  U.S, sailors and crewmen filled the canteen everywhere.  Again we watched closed circuit TV and again we could see more Vietnamese choppers coming.   Again, the pilots were beat-up and stressed out.  Gone were the glorious days of the flying eagles!   The tears in their eyes revealed their broken spirits.

Suddenly the sirens blared and the loudspeaker frantically announced another emergency on the flight deck.  Another plane was approaching the Carrier and there was no room.  Landing had been denied.   The plane, no bigger than the Cessna of the day before,  paid no attention.  The plane passed over a few times and signaled its intent land. The Vietnamese pilot had his wife and children with him and he did not want to ditch the plane knowing that they would all drown in the water.

The situation grew tense.  Finally the flight crews cleared the deck.  People rushed to the area and prepared for the worst that could happen.   After a couple of harrowing missed attempts, the pilot landed his plane in the exact spot that had been reserved for him.  He then slowed his plane and came to a complete stop just yards from the control tower.  Cheers went up and a loud applause exploded across the ship.  Several crewmen ran to the plane and opened the door.  The Vietnamese pilot gently lift his wife and children off the plane and all were safe and sound.  People rushed up and took pictures while crewmen excitedly shook the pilot’s hand.  The Navy Commander greeted him as if he was a hero of World War II.

I had forgotten that I was a refugee.  I laughed and cheered as if I was the one who had just escaped death.

We all went back to work.  In the afternoon only a few helicopters arrived. An officer invited us to have a grand tour of the Midway.  We went to several decks and the front and back of the carrier.  The ship was so grand, a virtual airbase in operation.  I saw several cars driving around on the hangar.  We were shown sleeping quarters, workrooms, and recreation rooms. All the mattresses were piled on top of each other in countless aisles.  Finally, the officer took us to a large area at the back of the hangar.  A new helicopter was parked alone and roped off.

I did not understand why this helicopter was shown to us.  As we got closer, the officer then told us that this was one of the first helicopters that had landed the day before.  The pilot of this helicopter was none other than General Nguyen Cao Ky, the ex -Vice President of South Vietnam.  It appeared to me that he must have been one super pilot – as he had landed here first!  I remembered just a few days before General Ky had vowed to fight with his troops to the end.  “Let the cowards who are leaving with the Americans go, and let those who love South Vietnam stay and fight!” Ky had proclaimed.   Later on I learned that this helicopter sometime back had been given to Ky by no less than U.S. President Gerald Ford.

That night, our third night on the water, the Commander joined us for dinner.  He gave each of us a Zippo lighter that had been engraved with a picture of the USS Midway.  He also gave us letters of appreciation and commendation.  To this day, I kept these two treasures, cherished mementos of my days of escape.  The escape that has changed my life forever!

Later that night, all eight of us boarded the last helicopter.  We were leaving.   Mixed emotions filled my heart as the helicopter took off, slowly leaving the USS Midway and all its memories.  These memories of a mere 2 days I could never have imagined.  I did not mind.  I felt like I was a little leaf that was drifting along, with the wind carrying me away to wherever it wanted.  That month of April 1975 I had just turned 24!

KV Nguyen
To America, the country I have grown to love

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