The U.S.S. Midway and the Phantom F-4 jet fighter

During my teenage years, I dreamed of becoming a jet fighter pilot. Believe it or not, I was accepted by the U.S. Air Force Academy, and had I opt for that career, I would certainly have seen my share of war. Anyways, few days ago, my family visited the U.S.S. Midway aircraft carrier in San Diego. The ship and the airplanes on it have been decommissioned for couple of decades now, but being in their presence still rekindled the excitement I had many years ago. Below is a frontal view of a Phantom F-4 on USS Midway. These two pieces of arsenal made a formidable duo during the early years of the Cold War. The fighter is capable of speed faster than mach 2 (two times the speed of sound). It can carry a variety of missiles and bombs, including the nuclear bomb!

Phantom 4 fighter on the U.S.S. Midway

Phantom F-4 fighter on the U.S.S. Midway



The USS Midway was put into service in 1945 and remained the largest ship ever built for the next decade. It was the flag ship during the first Iraq War, though decommissioned shortly after that. During the Vietnam War, Phantom 4’s launched from the USS Midway engaged Russian-made MIG-17’s flew by the North Vietnamese.

This ship is full of history. The docents working on it today are retired U.S. navy officers, many of whom actually served on USS Midway itself. Politics aside, one has to admire the singular focus of these individuals for precision and efficiency. From talking to them, you will immediately see they operate in a mode to win; to kill or be killed. And, away from it all, they are every bit ordinary human beings like any of us.

I had a chance to speak with Jerry Donovan, who was a marine aviator on-board the USS Midway during the Vietnam War. At one point, he was responsible for getting helicopters launched from the aircraft carrier and then make sure when they land, land safely.

The U.S. had promised the South Vietnamese military that if the U.S. ever withdrew, there would be an evacuation plan. Donovan recounts:

“You see, the U.S. almost reneged on that. There was no plan. At the last minute, all ships nearby were asked to take as many as they could.”

One of the most famous stories that came out of the evacuation was South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly, who simply took off in a Cessna with his wife and two of their children (plus two more) and was lucky to have spotted the USS Midway. Captain Larry Chambers, who commanded the aircraft carrier at that time, decided to let him land, and in the process pushed $10million worth of Huey helicopters into the South China Sea to clear up enough of a runway.

Today, this story is celebrated. Donovan tells me, Major Buang-Ly was invited back to USS Midway to give a speech recently. The major took a one way trip with his wife and children, and if unable to find the aircraft carrier, they would certainly have perished. His bravery and Captain Chambers’ willingness to accommodate an ally are both celebrated today.

However, the flip-side of the story is this. If Major Buang-Ly had remain in Vietnam, he would likely have been executed. Not surprising considering the misery the Vietnam War has brought to the Vietnamese. The people in the South who sided with the United States were simply viewed as traitors by the North. The major knew that.

Over the years, I have come to learn that a number of my friends were actually refugees, who escaped on tiny fishing boats out to sea, hoping to be picked up by cargo ships or oil tankers. They either escape, face death, or endure hardship for the rest of their lives. Escape wasn’t always a success. Many lives were lost at sea. Some ships were capsized by waves, some picked off by pirates, some perished with no more food or water, and the rest who made it renewed their hatred for the North.

I think the moral of the story is simple: don’t let your own people be divided by foreign powers. Once bloodshed starts, a people becomes two people. The Vietnamese already had to endure misery under French colonization. Their successful resistance and independence should have left the country totally united. Subsequent division of their country into North and South were entirely the fault of foreign powers.

But it appears time heals.

Jerry Donovan tells another story. An Phantom F-4 pilot was shot down after bombing a village. He ejected before his plane crashed. The villagers captured the downed pilot, and the village elder had jabbed a knife into the pilot’s shoulder to express his anger.

Well, this pilot survived the ordeal and is still alive today. And the interesting part is that he recently visited the village he bombed. Though the village elder had passed away, he was able to have tea with the son.

Perhaps time indeed heals. Americans should ask themselves, if it had been the other way around, where North Vietnamese planes came and killed Americans, could such a tea (or coffee) be possible?

I appreciate the humanity in this pilot for visiting the village. I respect more the magnanimity in these Vietnamese to forgive.

6 thoughts on “The U.S.S. Midway and the Phantom F-4 jet fighter

  1. I think this picture is a sad reminder of how the US essentially destabilized many US’ unfriendly countries by bombing them and this cycle is repeated in Syria.

  2. To look purely at an aviation history point of view, the F-4 is truly a remarkable aircraft. It was initially ordered by the US Navy as a carrier based interceptor. It is such a good design that even the USAF adopted it as its main fighter and over 5,000 was produced.

    Recently, a Turkish AF F-4 was shot down by Syria. And if we want to talk about politics, the version the German AF (Luftwaffe) adopted, the F-4F was a version with limited ground attack capability. This is to alleviate fear of a resurging German military. The British version uses Rolls Royce engines. I too thought of becoming a fighter pilot in my youth and actually attended Virginia Military Institute but politics eventually got in the way.

    The most successful F-4 air force pilot, S. Ritchie became a general. However, the most successful US navy pilot got elected as a congressman but eventually went to jail for corruption. http://acepilots.com/vietnam/cunningham.html

    Although I agree that weapon represent violence, it is an important part of history. The next generation should strive to avoid war at all cost.

  3. @Ray

    The next generation should strive to avoid war at all cost.

    With a straight face, I ask why? It’s only the losers that should strive to avoid war. At the rate the U.S. is going, with drones and overwhelming advanced weaponry, war is a great political advantage. No amount of sermonizing is going to take that away.

    In recent history, war may have taken a big toll in Asia, Middle East, even Europe – but not in America.

    The only thing that will wake America up from its humanitarian stupor is for others to catch up – to reduce the overwhelming advantage America holds. That’s why the move to a multi-polar world – which is not intrinsically better per se (could be more unstable, for example) – is good I think for today’s world …

  4. @Allen
    Good point. The main reason the US is able to become the no.1 world power because it managed to stay out of fighting major wars while the other contenders like British, Russian, German, French, Ottoman, Chinese etc were engaged in various stages of major conflict.

    Vietnam and Afghanistan is an utter disaster for the US and Soviet Union. Iraq and Afghanistan have also been costly to the US and its allies. War has only been good to the US when other powers are more deeply engaged. We both agree on that. However, right now the US is fighting a shadow scourge called extremist Islam that it has helped created. How can this be advantageous to the US? US lopsided policy in the Middle East is the actual cause but no politicians in Capitol Hill want to acknowledge it. No amount of drones, hi-tech weapon or espionage can defeat this so-called enemy because it is an ideology born out of unfair interventionist US policy in the Middle East. Both Russia and China crack down hard on extremist Islamist separatist but it is a territorial dispute.

    The root cause of US problem with extremist Islam is ambiguous US policies that reek of severe double standard in the Middle East. Address this issue and extremist Islam will be weakened. By launching more attacks by ignoring this issue, the US is building even more hatred of unknown enemies. The toppling of the various strong man government from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen etc actually brought even more uncertainties and provide more breeding ground for extremist Islam. Examples of how extremist Islam chose the US as targets but not Russia or China can ranged from the Fort Hood shooting (US born and educated Muslim), underwear bomber (from Nigeria), to Boston bombing (from Chechnya). Various other attacks showed that the US, and allies are facing an ideological enemy that transcend nationality.

    You probably have never heard of the Toronto 18. It won’t surprised many but what about this case that involved a Korean Canadian Muslim. I actually thought it was a joke when I read the title. It is clear that extremist Islam has worldwide followers who are convinced that the west is their enemy and the US is the head.

    The US and its allies will likely launched a limited attack against Syria soon. Do you think this will help or damage US’s world position? I am willing to bet it is the latter.

  5. Perhaps the fact that Vietnam seems to so easily forgive is affirmation that America can kill a million here and there without consequences. All is needed is time; wait few decades, all sins would be absolved.

    And, look at this:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2401378/Agent-Orange-Vietnamese-children-suffering-effects-herbicide-sprayed-US-Army-40-years-ago.html

    Despite all these fresh reminders, Vietnam still appears to be ever ready to embrace America.

    I still recall Bush saying history will judge him “right” for invading Iraq on false pretense of WMD. Perhaps people like him have a better grasp on human nature than we do.

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