Photos and story by Chris Stone
They say that time heals all wounds. But for many who suffered and sacrificed during the Vietnam War, 40 years is clearly not long enough. Tears still flow.
The Midway, now a harborside museum, again was the gathering place for people of two nations.
This time it was to remember what was gained and lost and to show appreciation for each other at the Sacrifice and Freedom in Vietnam event, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation marking the end of the war.
The aircraft carrier Midway played a pivotal part in saving thousands of fleeing Vietnamese in the last days of the war.
Visitors walked along the deck decorated with more than 58,300 yellow ribbons (for the U.S. war dead) and peered into helicopters similar to ones that shuttled refugees to American ships.
The ceremony included speeches by former American and Vietnamese officers, a presentation of the flags, and songs and dance. Thousands on the ship included veterans, refugees and family members who lost loved ones.
A community’s thanks“We are deeply grateful to the leaders and crew members of the Midway in Operation Frequent Wind,” said Kim-Thoa Hoang, director of the Economic Development Division of the local Union of Pan Asian Communities.
“The extraordinary rescue mission in April 1975 gave thousands of people the opportunity to live as free men and free women in democracy.
“Today, 40 years later, generations of Vietnamese have heeded that life-changing message and flourished as productive citizens of the U.S.”
On the ship, all had a story to tell.
A widow’s comforterDella Moreno brought flowers and a photo of her GI husband to lay at the foot of the wall.
She recalled how a man knocked on her Newark door in 1967 to tell her that her husband, Martin, and nearly all of his platoon were killed in an ambush.
Martin Moreno, 26, had been in Vietnam for six weeks.
“It is like it happened yesterday,” she said through tears.
“Never in my heart did I feel that something would happen to him; he was a platoon leader.”
As Moreno spoke of her husband, a young Vietnamese man listened and asked questions about her husband.
“We will make this right,” David Pham told her. “This is just one chapter in history.
“Vietnam will be free some day.”
Moreno replied, “I hope for that in my lifetime.”
The skipper’s hopeLarry Chambers, the Midway’s captain in 1975, called Sunday a sad occasion, “but the wall is here to try to help us all heal. A lot of healing is going on amongst both communities.”
“We love you,” a Vietnamese man shouted at the close of Chambers’ remarks.
While the Midway took on 10 Air Force helicopters for evacuations, small Huey helicopters, with as many as 50 refugees inside, ferried refugees to the Midway deck. More than 3,000 refugees were saved in the operation.
Chambers and Midway “Air Boss” Vern Jumper recalled the complex task of helping South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly land his plane on the Midway.
An admiral suggested that the pilot ditch the plane, but Chambers could see how many people were on the craft, and felt that if he didn’t make room, the pilot would crash.
After four failed attempts, the pilot dropped a note on the deck, asking for room to land. On the pilot’s third pass, it landed and hopped across the deck. Crew members had to push helicopters overboard to open a landing area.
Jumper said, “He stopped 100 feet short of the edge, and I had 150 men standing on the edge ready to grab him before he went over.”
One of Jumper’s main concerns was that many of the helicopters were running out of fuel and feared a crash. No one died that day on the Midway, he said.
“God was with us that day,” Jumper said. “He was watching out for us.”
The rescuer’s roleCraig Clemens, 20 at the time, was the man who found the message from the Vietnamese pilot. Clemens was driving a truck on the flight deck, and the message in a holster broke the mirror. He retrieved it and passed it on.
Speaking of his part in the rescue effort that day, Clemens said, “Vietnam (war) wasn’t a good thing for many years. I didn’t sit in a foxhole. I never shot anybody.
“At least my part of Vietnam was positive. That day shows it.”
Clemens says Midway sailors have stayed in touch over the years.
A refugee’s memoriesAt 15, Stephanie Dinh, with her family, was among those flown from Saigon to the Midway.
“What happened that day was both a sad and amazing day that turned my life around 360 degrees,” she said.
She recalled sitting on a bus en route to the Saigon airport: “I saw the entire city was in chaos.”
Dinh told how a woman outside the bus begged her to have the driver stop the bus, so that she could get on.
“I cannot forget the desperation and panic in her eyes,” Dinh recalled. “There was nothing I could have done to help her. I was torn and I tried to look away.”
Once on the Midway, her father promised that he would help his children continue their education and get good jobs.
“I appreciate my adopted country for what it has given to me,” said Dinh, now a docent at the Midway to “pay back in a small way what the ship did for my family.”
The last to leave by seaJames C. Tsu, aka Tsu A Cau, who attended the Vietnamese National Military Academy, found himself still in his country two days after the Vietnamese Navy left.
Along with 6,000 other refugees, he boarded an abandoned Vietnamese ship, HQ 402, which he was told was inoperable.
Without a captain or crew, members of all branches of the Vietnamese military organized and fixed the ship that turned out to be the last one to leave the country.
When they arrived at the Subic Bay Naval Base, they were not allowed to enter the port unless they lowered their Vietnamese flag.
“That was emotional for us,” Tsu said, “We all cried and dropped down. The (South Vietnamese) government was gone. We didn’t see the reality until the flag was coming down on our ship.
“Now, 40 years later, we are here today,” he said. A remembrance ceremony had been planned for Saturday at Camp Pendleton, which housed thousands of refugees. But because of federal law, the old Vietnamese flag was barred. Organizers canceled the event.
“We raise our flags again,” Tsu said on the Midway. “No one in Vietnam can show the flag.
“We have to do it because that’s our duty. A solder is supposed to protect the country and make for the people a better life. But we failed.”
He said the reason his compatriots still fight for the flag “is because we love our people. We have to do something to help them have a better life.”
The flag “is our life.”
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