Brookdale Salutes our Veterans: Larry Chambers and the Last Days of the Vietnam War

Larry Chambers, 88, is a resident at Freedom Plaza Sun City Center in Florida who made historic achievements throughout his military career and broke down barriers for African Americans.

Larry began his military career when he became the second African American to graduate from the United States Naval Academy in 1952. In the years following graduation, Larry began piloting various Navy aircraft and flew combat missions during the Vietnam War from the USS Ranger and USS Oriskany between 1968 and 1971. He became Captain of his first Navy vessel, the USS White Plains, a combat stores ship in 1972. Then, in 1975, he became the first African American to command a Navy aircraft carrier when he assumed control of the USS Midway.

Among Larry’s many accomplishments is the leadership he displayed during Operation Frequent Wind in 1975. The operation was the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees fleeing the North Vietnamese Army during the fall of Saigon. Over several days, helicopters from every branch of the military evacuated those fleeing Vietnam to the USS Midway. Eventually helicopters completely covered the carrier’s deck as the evacuees kept pouring in. In total, more than 3,000 people evacuated to the carrier in what Larry called “controlled chaos.”

In the midst of this chaos, Larry noticed that a small Cessna plane typically used for military reconnaissance was circling the carrier. After three attempts, the plane made a low pass across the carrier’s deck and dropped a note weighted down with a pistol. The note read, “Can you move the helicopters to the other side? I can land on your runway. I can fly 1 hour more. Please rescue me. – Major Buang, wife, and 5 child.” An Admiral on the ship advised Larry to let the plane ditch into the ocean, but he knew the family would not survive the crash. He knew what he had to do next.

Larry addressed the entire carrier over the intercom and ordered the 5,000 crewmen onboard to start pushing the millions of dollars’ worth of helicopters covering the deck into the ocean in order to allow for the safe landing of South Vietnamese Air Force Major Buang-Ly and his family. Thousands of crewmen emerged from below deck and began working furiously to push the helicopters into the ocean. “When a man has the courage to put his family in a plane and make a daring escape like that, you have to have the heart to let him in,” said Larry about his decision to give the order.

Once the carrier had a ready deck, Major Ly executed a perfect landing in conditions that were not ideal for the type aircraft his was flying. Major Ly was then escorted to the bridge where Larry took off the golden aviator wings from his uniform and pinned them on Major Ly’s shirt. “You are now an honorary Navy aviator,” said Larry.  

No one ever questioned Larry’s actions despite the risks he took to save Major Ly’s family. The crew of the USS Midway even raised money to help Major Ly and his family start a new life in the United States. After the Vietnam War ended, Larry continued his military career and eventually achieved the rank of Rear Admiral before he retired in 1984.

Larry framed and hung the note Major Ly dropped that day on his living room wall for many years before eventually donating it to the USS Midway Museum. Larry’s leadership that day saved the lives of thousands of people and demonstrated his tremendous character and valor.  

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