The Opportunity to Make History: Vietnam War Hero’s Flight to Freedom Remembered

Model designer Michael McLeod, Larry Chambers, Ted Bronson, and Buang Ly at the model presentation, 5 April 2014.

Model designer Michael McLeod, Larry Chambers, Ted Bronson, and Buang-Ly at the model presentation, 5 April 2014.


“The bravest guy I know. He didn’t have enough gas to make it back to the beach when Midway gave him an opportunity to make history.”    – Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN (Ret.) on Buang-Ly’s historic landing on the deck of USS Midway.

30 April 1975.

South Vietnam was in the process of being overrun by the North Vietnamese in April 1975. The end of the decades-old Vietnam conflict approached, and many South Vietnamese desperately tried to escape the country before the takeover by North Vietnam.

Major Buang Ly landing his Cessna OE-1 "Bird Dog."
Major Buang Ly landing his Cessna O-1 “Bird Dog.”

The U.S. Navy was busy cooperating with South Vietnamese forces in Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. According to NHF volunteer and Vietnam War veteran Capt. Ted Bronson, USN (Ret.) Frequent Wind was the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese from Saigon, South Vietnam. When that final phase ended, more than 7,000 people had been evacuated to safety aboard many U.S. Navy ships operating in the South China Sea.

Although the U.S. ran the operations during Frequent Wind, several South Vietnamese aviators took it upon themselves to escape in countless helicopters and planes. The most memorable story of the evacuation occurred nearly fifty years ago this month.

Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang was desperate. Buang-Ly and his family flew a VNAF O-1 “Bird Dog” from Con Son Island in South Vietnam to safety during the evacuation operation. Under heavy fire and dangerously low on fuel, Major Ly eventually found the American aircraft carrier USS Midway.

Ly began to circle around the Navy ship, desperate but unable to make contact. He resorted to writing a note stuck into his pistol, which he then dropped on the flight deck during a low pass:

Ly's handwritten message.

Ly’s handwritten message.


“Can you move the Helicopter to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough to mouve. Please rescue me.

Major Bung, wife and 5 child.”

Midway Commanding Officer Capt. Larry Chambers knew the lack of flight deck space aboard his ship would make Ly’s landing difficult. He ordered his crew to push several VNAF UH-1 Huey helicopters overboard to allow enough room for Major Ly to land. Rear Admiral Chambers recollects the events of the 30th:

“The sky was overcast. Light rain was falling. Not much of a sea state. When we turned into the wind we had 40 kts over the deck (15 knots natural plus 25 knots that the old girl was making). My only concern, besides the Admiral telling me not to do it, was whether or not Major Ly would carry enough power to get through the burble and down draft aft of the ship. The high wind over the deck increases the downdraft and the turbulence. Because we were operating helos, I had given the engineers permission to shut down half the plant for maintenance. When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that we didn’t have enough steam. I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels. You get the idea. In addition, we stripped the arresting gear cross deck pendants. At Ly’s approach speed, my only worry was getting him across the ramp. His relative speed couldn’t have been more than 20 to 25 knots.”

Ly received the “green light” from the tower and had permission to land. Landing the Cessna on the deck of carrier without a tailhook was no easy task. One website described the “Bird Dog” as “the plane those gutsy pilots used from Korea to Vietnam.” According to Chambers, Ly nonetheless “made a perfect landing.” Everybody on deck applauded, and Ly made it into the history books. Many sailors aboard collected money to help Buang and his family emigrate to the United States.

5 April 2014.

DSC_2832

Buang-Ly and Family with Admiral Chambers at the Sun ‘n Fun Expo.


Almost fifty years later, these events were commemorated in a small ceremony held at the 2014 Sun ‘n Fun International Fly-In & Expo in Lakeland, Florida. The Orlando resident came with his extended family to the event held outside the Florida Air Museum at Sun ‘n Fun.Major Ly was presented a special aircraft model in honor of the historic event. The ‘weathered’ model set on flight deck markings, was built by the US Navy’s ‘Cold War Gallery’ award-winning model builder Michael McLeod, and set in a museum quality acrylic case. The model was commissioned and presented by Captain Bronson on behalf of the Naval Historical Foundation.

Major Buang-Ly

Major Buang-Ly


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21 Comments

    • Mark Buchner

      Reply

      No, that’s just one of the many Bird Dogs that fly to Sun-n-Fun every year. The actual airplane Maj Ly flew hangs in the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, FL

  1. Robert Armitage

    Reply

    I was one of the CATCC controllers when the Bird dog landed. What a day. What a skipper we had in Capt. Chambers.

    R.A. Armitage

  2. Wendell Gideon

    Reply

    As a former Army Bird Dog pilot and Vietnam Vet, I salute Baung-Ly, the Ship’s Captain (then Capt. Chambers) and his fine crew. I would never have made it through the fixed wing course at Fort Rucker had I been required to land a Bird Dog on a Carrier.

  3. Jim Dolbow

    Reply

    Great article! Just one typo: it was nearly 40 years ago not 50 as stated twice int he article.

    • Jim Gordon

      Reply

      A second typo: The BirdDog was an O-1E.

      The landing was first-rate. The errors came from folks who weren’t involved.

      • Admin

        Reply

        Jim,

        Thanks for the heads up. According to the National Museum of Naval Aviation and our records here at NHF, it is a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog – no “e” designation. We have corrected it on the blog. Thanks so much.

        – NHF

  4. Jackie L. Howe

    Reply

    Still cry reading about this story. I left as a young child from Viet Nam and I still have fond nostalgia and deep connection with my birthplace. My heart aches for those who were left behind and suffered in “re-education” camps and it aches for all who still long, as I do, for the beautiful country that fell to communism.

  5. rick Kessel

    Reply

    I just had the pleasure of meeting Admiral Chambers over dinner and I am honored and edified ; what a great man!

  6. Pingback: Commemorating 40 Years Since Operation Frequent Wind | Your Stories. Your Wall.

  7. Ted G. Smyers, MSC (SW/SS) USN, Ret.

    Reply

    Admiral Chambers, is my Hero. Operation Frequent Wind, USS Miday (CVA-41), assigned to Supply Dept. S-2 Div., Aft Galley. We worked around the clock non-stop, to ensure all hands, & every single person, that made it out of “harms way” got a hot meal 24/7. Fair Winds & Following Seas.

  8. Bruce Denner

    Reply

    Admiral Chambers at the ckst of going up against the standing krders of the then Admiral you rock wish I would have had a Co like you when I was in. Awesome story.

  9. Reply

    On that day, then CAPT Chambers chose a difficult right over an easy wrong. His moral courage and decision to allow MAJ Ly to land on his aircraft carrier that save seven lives truly reflect outstanding leadership at its best . ADM (RET) Chambers you are my hero and on behalf of all Vietnamese American in the U.S.A. thank you from the bottom of my heart for saving a former allied officer and his family.

  10. Bill lee

    Reply

    It was amazing how well he land on the flight deck
    I was in V1 div and was right there when he landed

  11. Frank Dooley

    Reply

    I found the story of this rescue while Googling something unrelated and by the grace of God I read it. I was amazed and profoundly moved at the decision making process that “then Captain” Chambers used. His actions make me so proud to be an American! The faith, courage and ethics his actions showed are truly inspiring! This was truly a “Victory at Sea”!

  12. Moroni C.

    Reply

    We each must commit, today, to always make the right moral choice, regardless of the consequences. When our moment of decission comes will not be a time to vacilate.

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