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The heart of command

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image Rear Admiral Larry Chambers. Mitch Traphagen Photo

He didn’t have to save the family with five small children. He could have let them die. But that's not who Larry Chambers is.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

He didn’t have to save the family with five small children. He could have let them die; no one would have faulted him for it. Given the chaos that was ensuing all around him, it could have been just another sad footnote crowded into another sad chapter in history, and one quickly forgotten.

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers is ageless. His eight decades of life are hidden behind eyes that reveal energy, optimism, youth and vigor. His voice and laughter complete his agelessness. Chambers has few peers, not many people have accomplished what he has.  And no doubt some of those peers have eyes clouded with the jaundice of seeing too much of an imperfect world — but not Chambers. He smiles, he laughs and his eyes twinkle. Larry Chambers is a man who has set his own course.

Captain Larry Chambers was just over a month into being the commander of the aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, when he was ordered to make best possible speed to a point 150 miles off the coast of South Vietnam. In a matter of days, his ship would be the focal point of the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Named Operation Frequent Wind, approximately 7,000 people would be evacuated from Saigon as the city was falling to the North Vietnamese.

There is no larger, mightier ship than an aircraft carrier. Only two nations have successfully built them and even the Chinese, with their enormous manufacturing power, have yet to build their own. The Chinese aircraft carrier is one refurbished after purchase from the Russians. It is an airport and a floating city with a crew of roughly 5,000 people. Being in command of one is an accomplishment few men can claim. An argument could be made that there is no higher honor or greater responsibility. On the ocean, you are on your own and the captain is responsible for everything from the people to the spare parts.

Chambers found a Vietnamese translator to attempt radio contact with the small Cessna that was circling his ship as they arrived off the coast of Vietnam. There was no answer. Through the binoculars, he could see the pilot, another adult and some very small heads peering out the windows of the aircraft. Finally, on the third try, the pilot managed to land a note on the deck of the carrier. The note read verbatim:

Can you move the helicopters to the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly one hour more, we have enough time to mouve, please rescue me. 

The note was signed,

Major Bung wife and 5 child.

With one hour of fuel remaining in the Cessna Bird Dog, the coast of Vietnam was an hour and a half away. Helicopters filled the Midway’s runway and many were out of fuel. As opposed to having to go back to Saigon, running out of fuel on the deck of an aircraft carrier certainly had appeal. There was nothing good going on in Saigon.

“The guys would always run out of fuel on my deck,” Chambers said. “I mean, wouldn’t you?”

Short of a miracle, the only option for the South Vietnamese Major, his wife and five children would be to ditch the Cessna into the ocean. The aircraft, however, had fixed struts for the landing gear. Chambers knew that ditching would almost certainly be a death sentence for the children, if not the entire family. The moment those struts hit the water, the plane would likely flip over and sink. There would be no time to evacuate. There would be no rescue.

Larry Chambers wanted to fly airplanes and that is just what he did, landing them on aircraft carriers in the middle of the world’s oceans.

“When you are 20 years old, you don’t think anything is going to happen to you,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t think this could be hazardous to your health.”

“I never had any goals,” Chambers said in the den of his comfortable home at Freedom Plaza in Sun City Center. “I wanted to fly airplanes.”

But goals have a way of appearing on their own.

USS Midway (USN Image)“The goal of any carrier aviator is to sit in that big chair one day,” he said, referring to the captain’s chair on the bridge of the mightiest ship in the world. “And then when you are sitting in that big chair, you wonder, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”

He had never before heard the order to make best speed. That is no small feat on an aircraft carrier. Cruising at over 30 knots, the ship consumes three-quarters of a million gallons of fuel each day.

“They’ll run on anything, though,” Chambers said of the fuel, “Even jet fuel in a pinch.”  (He laughed when I asked him if he ever reached the point of raiding the galley for the peanut oil.)

“It’s a 24/7 job,” he said. “I had more hours sleeping in that chair than in my rack [the berth in his quarters]. You can’t delegate the responsibility, you can’t pass it along.”

On April 29, 1975, when a Cessna Bird Dog was an hour and a half of flying time from the coast of Vietnam, the note landed on his deck. Chambers knew what needed to be done. He didn’t consider what it might cost him or his career, he didn’t need to look anything up in a regulation book. He knew what he had to do.

Although only little more than a month in command, he had already been tested in a high stakes game of chicken with a Soviet ship. He won that game because he was confident in himself, his ship and his crew. Winning it wasn’t a goal as much as it was something he needed to do, not just for himself but for his men. Yet he had no desire to start World War III. He was in the right and that was where he stayed (with only a slight alteration in course to ensure that the other ship would read his intent clearly).

As the Cessna circled, big helicopters were all over the deck of the Midway and there were many more to come. In the time it took to retrieve the note and bring it to Chambers on the bridge, two more helicopters landed.

With his deck cluttered with helicopters, out of fuel and with nowhere to go, Chambers didn’t hesitate. He ordered that helicopters be pushed overboard. On the bridge, he was asked to repeat that order and he did — while someone faithfully wrote his words into the ship’s logbook. Responsibility would not be passed along. An admiral was on board “second guessing everything I did” but it was Chambers in the big chair.

“I ordered that helicopters be pushed over the side. Of course, they made me repeat it. I didn’t want to know the exact number, I wanted to be able to say, ‘Hey, we pushed a couple of things over the side,’” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.

When he made the call for help, it seemed that everyone on the ship, regardless of station or position, turned out to answer him.

“Look at the compassion on this man’s face,” Chambers said while holding a black and white military photo taken as helicopters filled to the brim with people landed on the deck of the Midway. “That man was trained to kill and just look at the compassion.”  The photo was of a bosun’s mate in full gear, gently carrying an infant off a helicopter.

To say it was a difficult time would be an understatement to the extreme. If there are ideal circumstances under which a war could end, that was not it. Saigon, the capitol city, was falling. On the deck of his ship, a place that under normal circumstances is exacting in precision, hundreds of people, almost all civilians who were terrified, were emptying out of helicopters.

“The flight deck under normal conditions is controlled chaos,” Chambers said. “Under these conditions… there were people everywhere. There were elderly people and mothers with babies and we were just trying to get them out of harm’s way. We had no idea who was coming. One Huey landed with nearly 50 people. They were using cargo nets over the people just trying to protect them.”

Unlike the jets that landed on the flight decks of carriers, the Cessna Bird Dog had no tail hook to catch a wire that would stop the aircraft before it ran out of runway. Also, Major Bung-Ly had never landed on a carrier before.

“His wife is in the backseat, he’s in the front seat,” Chambers said. “His wife was holding a baby, he was holding a baby. We could see through the binoculars little heads looking around. My thought was that this guy was going to crash on deck. He can’t put it into the water and the plane had no tail hook.”

While the helicopters were being pushed overboard, Chambers ordered the engineer to make way at 25 knots into the wind. In order to do that, literally all of the power on the ship needed to be diverted to making the propellers turn.

“We had a 15 knot wind so moving at 25 knots would give him a 40 knot headwind. I knew we could stop him. I’ve done my part, the deck is clear and I’m heading into the wind. Now he just has to land it.”

He landed. Black and white photos show the jubilation as crew members raced to the Cessna. Today Major Bung-Ly and his wife are American citizens living in Florida. The Bird Dog is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.

From Vietnam to Thailand to Guam, Chambers spent most of his time in the big chair on the bridge of the Midway. In Guam, the press flooding his ship, Chambers was on the Today Show.

“When the press came aboard, I was in my white dress uniform, trying to look like I’d had some sleep when I hadn’t,” he said. “My only claim to fame is that I was on the Today Show once.” (That is another understatement — to the extreme.)

Already with few peers in being the captain of an aircraft carrier, Chambers was later promoted to admiral. He would go on to work on systems that would change the way carriers and the pilots who land on them operate, making them safer and more precise. A modest man, he deflected credit to his crew and others. From an outside perspective, he has so many claims to fame that it would be impossible to choose just one.

But from the standpoint of history, perhaps his greatest claim is that he had the heart of command. He didn’t flinch, he didn’t hesitate, he didn’t worry what pushing millions of dollars in helicopters overboard could do to his career. He saved the lives of an entire family. No one else on that ship could have done that; perhaps few men would have had the courage. It was in his heart.

“There’s always something you could get court-martialed for,” Chambers said with a chuckle. “If you’re going to get court-martialed for anything….”

Yes, saving the lives of a young family would be it.

Chambers was quoted as saying that Major Bung-Ly was the bravest man he had ever met. He flew his family out of a situation that probably would have meant death or worse for all of them and into the unknown. He didn’t know where the Midway was. He didn’t know that he could or would be able to land on it.

Although I’ve never met Major Bung-Ly, I’ve met many people I’ve considered brave and heroic. Of them all, Larry Chambers is the bravest man I’ve ever met. He is a man who put his heart into his command. At a time when all seemed lost, Chambers gave his crew and his country victory. It was a win for the human spirit. Chambers is a man of few peers.

It is impossible to put Larry Chambers’ story into a newspaper article of 2,000 words. It is simply not enough to do justice to him, to his crew and to his accomplishments. On Feb. 3, Rear Admiral Larry Chambers (USN Ret.) will share his story during the monthly meeting of the Silver Osprey Squadron. For information, email silverosprey@yahoo.com. Although the lunch meeting is sold out, contact Bill Shanks at 813-634-3194, by email at wshanks@tampabay.rr.com or via mail at 1010 American Eagle Blvd. #750, Sun City Center, FL 33573, for information about a standby list or reservations for future meetings.

The USS Midway began service as a museum in San Diego in 2004. In her first year, the museum saw double the projected attendance with nearly 900,000 visitors.

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