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!
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.