SAN DIEGO, Calif.— On a flight deck crowded with U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aircraft and helicopters, 89-year-old Vern Jumper tells USS Midway visitors about the day the deck they’re standing on became the last and best hope for Vietnamese fleeing life under Communist rule.
Wearing the bright yellow ballcap identifying Midway docents who lived the legends of America’s longest-serving aircraft carrier, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Vern Jumper, retired after a 31-year career, vividly recalls one of the Midway’s great achievements — one that put his name in the history books.
In the calm, understated voice of a pilot who made just under 300 F-4 Phantom landings on the USS Midway, CVA 42, about 100 more on the Coral Sea CVA 43, and about a 100 F-11F Tiger landings on the Shangri-La, CVA 38, Jumper adds, “While I was making all those landing, my wife Rebecca was home chasing four kids.”
He tells his listeners how the Midway crew saved thousands of lives by bold and decisive action when the planned orderly evacuation of America’s Saigon Embassy was unexpectedly followed by a panic-driven exodus from the coast.
Until the Taliban conquest of Kabul, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2021, Operation Frequent Wind’s evacuation of Saigon was among the largest military rescue missions in American history. In contrast, “Operation Allies Refuge” in Kabul lasted from July 14 to Aug. 15, evacuating the U.S. -estimated 123,000. The evacuation of Saigon entailed the rescue of more than 100,000, of which Midway took aboard 3,073.
Operation Frequent Wind’s first scheduled evacuation helicopters lifted off from the Midway the afternoon of April 29, 1975, four days after South Vietnam’s president left the nation in panic by fleeing to Taiwan. Earlier, U.S. Air Force helicopters ferried up to 60 people at a time from Saigon to the Midway, even as nearby vessels in the Navy flotilla took aboard other American and Vietnamese civilians and officials to prevent overcrowding the Midway.
Air Boss Vern Jumper, undisputed frontline director of flight deck operations, recalls Midway had dropped off her fixed-wing aircraft days earlier and brought aboard CH-47 Chinook and UH-1 Hueys to join 10 Air Force H-53 helicopters.
It was the collapse of South Vietnamese government authority inside the tightening noose around Saigon that triggered the unforeseen, uncontrolled, and potentially deadly flock of South Vietnamese military helicopters speeding blindly out to sea in hope of finding a friendly deck before running out of fuel.
An unknown number of Huey’s, some packed with as many as 50 people, crashed at sea. Others were able to land aboard. Jumper recalls that later arrivals were eventually allowed to touch down just long enough to let passengers disembark. The pilots then had to lift off, ditch, and wait for rescue by boat.
But on April 30 those problems began to pale in comparison with the arrival of a wild card: Descending rapidly toward the Midway’s still packed flight deck was a small, single piston engine-powered South Vietnamese Air Force O-1 Birddog.
Jumper recalls the pilot, Maj. Buong Le, making two low passes over the Midway’s flight deck, both times dropping a paper message which was immediately blown over the side. On the third pass, the note was folded into an empty handgun holster.
The pilot’s brief message said he, along with his wife and five children, flew seaward from an island base with no detailed charts or idea about where to find the U. S. fleet. Without radio communications, the note asked that the carrier’s “runway” be cleared quickly as he was running out of fuel.
Midway Capt. Lawrence Chambers conferred with Air Boss Jumper. They agreed a water landing would be a disaster. Notifying his task force commander, Chambers ordered the flight deck be cleared of people and machines, and that Buong be allowed to land. In rain and rising winds, and without a tail-hook, Buong made a good approach and completed his carrier landing rollout with room to spare, saving his family to the applause of the flight deck team.
Operation Frequent Wind was considered by some to be the 30 most dangerous hours onboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway.
Operation Frequent Wind also marked the end of a war that ultimately cost the lives of over 57,000 U.S. service members.
It did directly save the lives of 3,073 evacuees; and as Vern Jumper quietly points out, without the loss any human life taken aboard.
That human salvation did come at a price, however. It was pointed out to Mr. Jumper that he might be required to reimburse the government for having thrown over the side about $10 million worth of perfectly good helicopters. He never got a bill. And in his defense, the record shows he was still aboard Midway when she later sailed into Thailand to take aboard a capacity load of 101 fixed-wing military aircraft that otherwise would have been lost to Cambodian communists.
Now, those are things to tell your grandchildren. Vern and his wife have eight grandkids and 3 great-grandchildren.
In all, some 45 Huey and 3 larger Chinook helicopters landed on the Midway, though some had to be pushed overboard to make room for newer arrivals.
Visitors to the Midway who want to meet this American hero should plan to go aboard on a Friday when he’s volunteering near the stern on the flight deck.