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The South Vietnamese Pilot Who Stole a Plane to Save His Family

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 2, 2024 3:04 am

The South Vietnamese Pilot Who Stole a Plane to Save His Family

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 2, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Major Buang-Ly worked as a pilot with the United States military during the Vietnam War. When the US began evacuating, he knew he had to get his family out. Historian Hill Goodspeed from the Naval Aviation Museum brings us this amazing story of a father doing whatever he could to save his family.

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All you can stream with Zumo Play. And we continue with our American stories. Today we have a history story brought to us from the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. In April of 1975, the United States was engaging in an evacuation of Saigon, which at the time was the capital of South Vietnam. This evacuation plan known as Operation Frequent Wind came as the North Vietnamese were closing in on South Vietnam.

Here's historian Hill Goodspeed with the story. So there were U.S. nationals who were still in Saigon, and there were also other people wanting to get out. And the embassy, of course, needed to be evacuated. So the U.S. Navy sent a fleet of ships, and they operated off the coast of South Vietnam. And there was pretty much an aerial shuttle is the best way to describe it, of Marine Corps and Navy helicopters flying in country and landing primarily on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy to pull people out and take them to the ships offshore. There was also aircraft flying from airfields in South Vietnam, getting people out. These helicopters would fly out to the U.S. ships.

There'd just be an array of people that were getting off from various backgrounds. They could be South Vietnamese individuals just trying to escape, families just trying to get out, knowing that the North Vietnamese forces, the communist forces coming in would not treat those who had worked with the American forces during the long U.S. involvement in Vietnam very well. Amidst this operation, there was one man, a South Vietnamese pilot, who decided to take into his own hands the safety of his family.

Major Bong Le. During the long involvement of U.S. forces in Vietnam, there was a training program that existed to integrate South Vietnamese personnel and military forces into U.S. operations. Certainly a big part of that was training pilots to fly various missions, and they formed the South Vietnamese Air Force. There was also a group called the ARVN, which is Army of the Republic of Vietnam. These individuals served alongside American forces, U.S. advisors during the course of the Vietnam War. He was, at the time of the fall of Saigon, he came up with the idea that he needed to get out, especially with his military affiliation. And with the ability to fly, he commandeered an aircraft, which is in South Vietnamese Air Force markings.

I mean, it's still displayed in the museum in those markings. He commandeered that aircraft and loaded his wife and five children on board. And it was a two-seat aircraft. The aircraft is a light observation plane, so it's not unlike the small civilian aircraft you see flying around small airports or around the country here in the United States. It was an American-built airplane, but it was designed as an observation plane. That's what O meant in its designation.

O-1 means observation, was what the O stood for. He loaded his wife and five children into this plane, and with being only a two-seater, the children were stuffed back into the fuselage of the airplane behind the cockpit area. And so I can't even imagine what it must have been like for them, being so young in this really chaotic scene, to be all of a sudden find themselves in a, just stuffed into a darkened compartment and off they go into the air. I mean, I'm not sure whether any of them had ever even flown before. I mean, he may have been the only one aboard the aircraft that had even been in the air before, I'm not certain. But, and then off they went with only a, really only a promise of something that might happen. I can't even imagine you're flying out over the water and there was no guarantee he could land on a ship out there or no guarantee of what the future held.

But it just goes to show whatever uncertainties lay in the future, it was better than the situation that awaited them if they stayed behind. As he flew out over the Pacific, he eventually happened upon the U.S. fleet of ships. And one of the ships there was the USS Midway, which is an aircraft carrier. And it's actually a ship that is still in existence.

It's a floating museum in San Diego. But he came upon the USS Midway and he flew low over the deck and he dropped a note onto the deck, which was routine at that time from a low flying aircraft and a very slow aircraft like that, you could deliver messages in that way. And the note, luckily for those onboard the Midway, they were evacuating a lot of Vietnamese nationals.

So there was no problem getting the note translated as to what he wanted to do. And he indicated essentially that I want to land. I've got, here's who's aboard this airplane and here's who I am. And I would like to land on the USS, land on the ship. And at that point, the commanding officer had a decision to make. And the commanding officer was a guy named Captain Lawrence Chambers. And he was actually the first African-American to command a U.S. aircraft carrier. So he was pretty unique in history at that time. But if you look at what his situation he faced, he had the array of helicopters coming in and landing on his ship.

I mean, it was a constant stream of them. A carrier flight deck, even though it looks really big, is a relatively limited space if you compare it to, say, an airport airfield. So space is at a premium and you have to clear a certain amount of space to operate aircraft. And so he had a decision to make on how he was going to try to meet the wishes of this individual who wanted to land. And first of all, he had to have concern that this individual's never landed on an aircraft carrier before.

I don't know what his proficiency is, whether he'll be able to do it or not. It could be dangerous to those on the deck. Maybe I'll have him ditch the airplane in the water and we can send a boat or send a helicopter to go rescue the family. But the problem with that is the O-1 Bird Dog is an airplane that has fixed landing gear, for one. And if you would have tried to ditch the airplane in the water with fixed landing gear, that landing gear would have dug into the water as it hit it. And probably would have flipped the airplane over on its back.

So you have a situation where the kids stuffed in the back of the fuselage, there would be a good chance that they may not be able to make it out of the airplane. So that was an option that, even though he considered it was one that was not going to bring the result that needed to be, that was going to be a positive result. So then his next decision was to clear the deck, he was going to have to push some of the helicopters over the side.

And there may have been some expense to that, but with all that was going on, a lot of the military equipment being used, it was a minor expense to pay in his mind to save the lives of some individuals. So he ordered some helicopters pushed over the side to clear space. And then most aircraft or all aircraft generally have to land on an aircraft carrier. They have to be brought to a stop with a tail hook that is located on the underside of the fuselage.

And it engages a wire that is strung across the deck. Well, in this case, this aircraft was so light, he wouldn't have to stop it in that manner. He brought the airplane in after he received word that he could land. When it hit the deck, he was able to bring it to a stop in a relatively short distance. He was also aided by the fact that the aircraft carrier was turned into the wind.

So there was wind coming across the deck and that helped slow him as well. And the crew ran out, was able to help bring the airplane to a stop. And there's a famous photograph that was taken on the deck. You can see him emerging from the airplane.

You can see his wife as well. And there's a throng of crewmen surrounding this tiny airplane on the flight deck. And it's a real inspiring shot to see because of, one, just the smiles that are on the crew. I mean, it was such a momentous moment for them, and really the whole time. And their whole day had been spent.

Normally the crew would be launching combat aircraft into action. But here, that whole day, they knew that they were literally the passage to freedom for a lot of people. And you could just see the looks of joy on their faces in this particular case of what this family did and what they accomplished to get out of South Vietnam that day. A plane that brought Major Bong Le and his family to freedom and safety has been on display in the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, mere months after it made its historic landing. It's an airplane that's easy to get lost amidst all the famous jets and combat aircraft that we have here.

It's tiny, it's tucked, it's suspended from the ceiling in one of our hangars. But when people hear the story about what it represents, it becomes instantly one of the most inspiring things they see when they come here, once they know and appreciate the story behind it. And a special thanks to Madison on the storytelling and the interviewing and on the production. A special thanks to Faith. And also a special thanks to historian Hill Goodspeed, who tells this remarkable story of American generosity and heart in the end.

The story of Major Bong Le, also the story of Captain Lawrence Chambers, who issued that order here on Our American Stories. on the iHeartRadio music channels. No logins, no signups, no accounts, no hassle. So what are you waiting for? Start streaming at or download from the app and Google Play stores today.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-02 04:50:58 / 2024-05-02 04:56:14 / 5

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