POSTED ON: Monday, October 17, 2022 1:03 PM by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jordyn Diomede
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) hosted its 3rd annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Mahan Hall, Oct. 4-5.
Panelists and guests traveled from all over the country to participate in the conference, which included panel discussions about “Breaking the Atmosphere,” “Commanding with Inclusive Leadership,” and “Daring to be Authentic.”
In addition, the former deputy commandant of midshipmen – a U.S. Marine Corps aviator and the first African-American NASA Administrator – was the keynote speaker: retired Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, Class of 1968.
With a plethora of experience and knowledge shared with hundreds of midshipmen, faculty, staff, and guests throughout the two-day conference, stories of moral courage, overcoming adversity, and triumph echoed through the Mahan Hall theater.
Filing into the theater on the final day of the conference, many were eager to watch and listen to the panel discussion titled, “Evacuating Saigon.”
The panel included retired Navy Rear Adm. Lawrence Chambers, Class of 1952; Navy Rear Adm. Huan Nguyen; retired Navy Capt. Hung Cao, Class of 1996; and Minh-Tu Nguyen Greenberg, Class of 1999. Each member recounted their own memories of the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army and the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam.
Nguyen, Cao, and Greenberg were all in Saigon at that time, and made it to the United States as refugees to pursue their own versions of the American dream.
Chambers, a pilot during the Vietnam War, was the first African American to command an aircraft carrier and the first African American graduate of the Naval Academy to attain a flag rank.
Chambers' story as the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Midway (CV 41) during Operation Frequent Wind, the operation conducted by the U.S. to evacuate American and Vietnamese civilians from Saigon, is one of moral courage.
After only a few months as commanding officer, he was operating with his crew in the South China Sea about 100 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam. Operation Frequent Wind required the use of his flight deck by UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, or Hueys, for the unloading and caring of thousands of refugees fleeing the communist advance on Saigon. The Hueys were landing on the flight deck of Midway non-stop for more than 24 hours. However, once the helicopters ran out of gas, the carrier didn’t have the facilities to refuel them.
“There was very little landing space left anywhere on the deck, even for incoming helicopters,” Chambers recalled. “At this point, our lookouts picked up a small Cessna aircraft approaching our aircraft carrier. The plane had two seats, one for the pilot and one for a crew member. With binoculars, we could see a woman sitting in the second seat holding a baby in her arms. In the baggage compartment, we could see a couple of heads. So we knew there were at least five souls onboard. The aircraft came closer and the pilot attempted to drop a note on the flight deck. I didn’t need a note to tell me that this man was escaping with his family and he obviously wanted to land on my flight deck.”
After a few missed attempts, the pilot was successful in dropping the note on the deck. A crew member brought the note to the bridge and Chambers read what had been written:
“Can you move these helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time to mouve. Please rescue me. Major Buang, wife and 5 child.”
For Chambers, the situation offered many challenges, one of which was that the major’s aircraft was not designed to land on an aircraft carrier because it had no tailhook. Another was that the admiral told him to tell the major to ditch the aircraft, noting that if they landed in the water, they could pick them up. But the Cessna L-19/O-1 Bird Dog was not designed to land on an aircraft carrier or in the water.
“I knew it would flip over and everyone on that airplane would most likely drown,” he said. “I also knew what the admiral was doing was covering his butt, and I said [to myself], ‘I can’t stand by and watch women and children drown.’ With only an hour of fuel left, there was not enough gas for the aircraft to make it back to the beach safely. I put myself in the pilot’s shoes, and I knew what he wanted. He wanted a spot on my flight deck, and I was going to make a spot for him in spite of the orders I had received otherwise.”
With the help of a lot of Sailors and a willing crew, they pushed the helicopters over the side of the carrier into the South China Sea to clear the runway for the major to land his aircraft, but soon after, eight more Hueys landed on the flight deck with more refugees. After unloading the personnel from the helicopters, the crew proceeded to push those eight helicopters over the side as well.
“Obviously, with what we had already pushed over the side,” he said, “eight more helicopters wasn’t going to make any more difference in the court martial that I was staring at in the face.”
Once given the green light, the pilot made a perfect landing on the flight deck. The crew cheered, his family was taken below to safety with the other refugees, and he was ordered to the bridge.
“The major who we know today as Buang Lee was brought to my bridge for a brief meeting,” Chambers said. “I was so impressed with his bravery and performance that I took off my Navy wings of gold, pinned them on the major, and made him an honorary naval aviator.”
Over the years, Chambers has received accolades for his naval career, his participation in the evacuation of Saigon, and the rescue of the Lee family, but the way he sees it, he knows who the real hero was.
“It was not I,” he said. “It was [South Vietnamese Air Force] Major Buang Lee. Major Lee is the bravest man I have ever met, and I was privileged to be part of his drama 45 years ago on a rainy afternoon in the South China Sea.”
Today, the Lee family lives in Orlando, Florida. According to Chambers, all five of the Lee children are successful professionals, and the Lees have seven grandchildren.
Chambers finished his presentation to the midshipmen, faculty, staff, and guests in attendance, leaving them with two final thoughts.
“Number one, do the right thing. Follow your conscience and your ethical guide. You may lose your job, you may even lose your career, but your self-respect and your integrity will always remain. Number two, when you are in a position of command, never give orders to solely protect yourself. When you do so, you put your people in the untenable position of forcing them to run the risk of court martialing in order for them to do what they believe is the right thing. If you follow these guidelines in your career, you too will be a success.”
Following the conclusion of the panel presentation, midshipmen stepped up to the microphones placed in the theater to speak to the panelists.
“Admiral Chambers, thank you for your moral courage and the actions you took back in ’75,” said Midshipman 2nd Class (junior) Tai Tran. “As a son of an immigrant and refugee during that time, I can tell you here now that your impact could be felt even in generations removed from the actual event itself.”
For Tran, hearing from the panelists reminded him of why he wants to serve his country.
“The reason that I decided to join up is to preserve the liberties and freedoms that are guaranteed to us by this great nation and be able to preserve that for future generations to come.”
Midshipman 1st Class (senior) Stephen Scholl also found the panel to be meaningful to him. His mother immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975 when she was 11 years old, facing a great deal of adversity to find success in America.
“The ‘Evacuating Saigon’ panel is the first time I have met successful Vietnamese Americans with similar backgrounds in the military, and I am inspired to follow in their footsteps,” he said. “Hearing the story of a hero like Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers reminds me of the positive impact I can make as a naval officer. After all, without people like him I wouldn't be an American.”
The selfless actions of Chambers nearly 50 years ago are a true testament of moral courage in the face of adversity, and a reflection of the respect for humanity.
“We are the United States of America,” said Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee and the current deputy commander of cyber engineering at the Naval Sea Systems Command. “We all came from different backgrounds, we all came from different areas, we all have our political differences. At the end of the day, we are all Americans.”USNA
Category: General Interest