Practice English Speaking&Listening with: That Time Marines Dumped Millions of Dollars of Helicopters Into the Ocean to Save One Family

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Few feats of engineering are as impressive as a military-grade helicopter.

Today worth millions of dollars each, these high-tech birds are a formidable military

asset, including, among many other uses, for rescue operations- all a fact US military

personnel helpfully chose to ignore during Operation Frequent Wind when they pushed several

dozen of them into the sea, in one case for no other reason than to save a mother, a father,

and their five children.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, Operation Frequent Wind was the name give to the final phase

of evacuations during the Fall of Saigon- effectively the final days of the Vietnam


Noted as being one of the largest military evacuations in history and the largest involving

helicopters as the primary means of evacuation, Operation Frequent Wind is celebrated as a

logistical success for the US due to the fact that a few dozen helicopter pilots were somehow

able to evacuate over 7,000 people in around 18 hours.

This is made all the more impressive when you realise that the mass evacuation was never

supposed to involve helicopters much at all.

You see, while Operation Frequent Wind is now famous for being the most successful mass

helicopter evacuation ever organised, using helicopters as the primary means of evacuation

was never the original plan- it wasnt even the backup plan.

It turns out that it was the backup to the backup to the backup plan.

Known initially as Operation Talon Vise until North Vietnamese spies heard whispers of it,

the plans for a mass evacuation of Vietnam had been in place for several years and were

originally supposed to involve the primary use of both commercial and military aircraft

which would evacuate at-risk citizens and military personnel, with the total slated

to be evacuated estimated to be about 2 million people.

Failing or in addition to this, the idea was to dock ships at Saigon port and load them

with as many people as possible.

In the event none of these options were possible, the final, Hail Mary plan was to instead use

military helicopters to transport people to ships off shore.

Of course, evacuating the original estimate of 2 million people was never an option for

the helicopter plan alone, nor even the extremely whittled down number of about 100,000-200,000

that military brass eventually reduced that figure to.

Instead, at this point it was just as many people as they could as fast as they could.

So why did the US have to fall back to literally their least effective option if theyd been

planning the evacuation for years?

Well, much of the blame falls somewhat unbelievably to the actions of a single man- Graham Anderson

Martin, the American ambassador to South Vietnam at the time who steadfastly refused to agree

to start an evacuation for fear of mass panic and given his unshakable faith in the notion

that the threat of thesuperior American firepowerwould keep the enemy at bay.

Despite this, recommendations did go out in advance of Operation Frequent Wind that at

risk people should leave the country, resulting in a total of around 50,000 people, including

a few thousand orphans, leaving via various planes in the months leading up to an actual

evacuation being started.

This was mostly done via supply aircraft who would bring supplies in, and then load up

as many people as they could for the trip home.

Yet an official full scale evacuation, which would have seen these efforts massively ramped

up, was continually stalled by Martin.

Military brass tried and failed to persuade Martin to change his mind, with Brigadier

General Richard E. Carey going as far as to travel to Saigon to plead personally with

with the ambassador.

This was a meeting Carey would later diplomatically callcold and non productiveand should

be noted took place on April 13th, 2 weeks after preparations were already supposed to

have begun for the mass evacuation.

This back and forth continued until April 28th when North Vietnamese forces bombed the

Tan Son Nhut Air Base, effectively eliminating any possibility of getting people out via

large aircraft capable of mass evacuation.

When this was pointed out to the Martin, he still refused to call for the evacuation,

deciding to wait until the next day so he could drive out to the base and confirm the

damage for himself.

Upon confirming that North Vietnamese forces had indeed destroyed the air base and the

best option for a mass evacuation, he finally relented.

This was an order that was relayed to soldiers on the ground via the official Armed Forces

Radio station by the wordsThe temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising,” followed

by the playing the song Im Dreaming of a White Christmas by Bing Crosby.

As a direct result of Martins stubbornness, the military had no choice but to rely on

the least effective means of mass evacuation- via helicopter, with the operation officially

commencing later that afternoon at 14:00.

Even as the operation began, Martins bullheaded refusal to prepare in anyway for an evacuation

caused problems for certain helicopter pilots, most notably the ones trying to evacuate him

and his staff.


Well there was a large tree in the embassy courtyard that military brass hadstrongly

advisedMartin cut down so as to better allow helicopters to land there should the

worst happen.

Martin, believing that doing so would be as good as admitting the war had already been

lost, absolutely refused to do this.

As Henry Kissinger would later note, “Faced with imminent disaster, Martin decided to

go down with the ship.”

On that note, to his credit, Martin refused to leave once the evacuation had begun, though

this was much to the annoyance of the pilot, Colonel Gerry Berry, sent to fetch him.

Instead, Martin continually had refugees boarded while he simply waited with his staff in his

office, knowing that as long as he was there, the helicopter would keep coming back allowing

more lives to be saved.

It wasnt until the 14th trip that an exhausted Berry finally reached his witsend.

Said Berry, “I called the sergeant over.

And he got up in the cockpit.

And I said, ‘This is it.

Get all these people off.

This helicopters not leaving the roof until the ambassadors on board.

The President sends.'”

With an order supposedly from the President himself, though not actually in reality, Martin

finally relented and allowed Berry to complete his mission by transporting Martin and his


Of course, what the military brass had failed to remember after this supposed last flight

was that theyd accidentally left almost a dozen soldiers behind at the compound

This wouldnt be realized for many hours, but all 11 Marines were rescued after being

forced to barricade themselves on the rooftop for the night in case of an attack.

Leaving the evacuations as late as Martin did understandably resulted in mass panic

across Saigon with many thousands of South Vietnamese citizens fleeing in everything

from cars to stolen planes and helicopters.

In addition, lack of time meant that helicopter pilots had a laughable number of people to

rescue, resulting in many ignoring therecommendedweight limit of their craft and massively

overloading them to the very extremes of what they could handle given the pilots assessments

and weather conditions.

In one case, one pilot noted he was overweight to the point that he could only hover inches

off the ground, but no one was willing to get off as for many it would mean their life

if they could not get out of the country.

He then stated he thought if he could get some forward speed he could get the additional

lift needed, so simply pitched the craft forward and took a dive off the rooftop he was on,

barely recovering before hitting the rooftops below and then managing to very slowly climb

from there.

As for these pilots, they were instructed to ferry evacuees to waiting ships in the

South China Sea, many of which quickly began to run out of space resulting in people sleeping

double in the small bunks, as well as just anywhere on the ships there was available

space for someone to sit or lie down on.

On top of that, any South Vietnamese pilots that could manage to get a hold of their own

helicopters and flee to sea were also crowding the decks as they arrived.

This resulted in the order to push some of these South Vietnamese helicopters overboard

to make more space, or orders for some pilots to simply crash their helicopters into the

ocean and await rescue after theyd dropped off any passengers.

This all brings us around to the incredible story of Major Buang Lee.

Knowing he and his family- a wife and five children- would in all likelihood be executed

if they couldnt find a way out of the country immediately, the Major managed to commandeer

a small Cessna O-1 spotter plane.

Under heavy fire, he managed to take off and flee the country with two adults and five

children jam packed aboard the tiny, slow moving aircraft.

He then headed out to sea in search of a ship to land on or ditch the plane next to.

About an hour and a half off the coast and with only about an hour of fuel left, he finally

found one in the USS Midway.

The issue now was there was not sufficient room to land on the ship, owing to the number

of helicopters on the deck.

Unable to find the right frequency on the radio to talk to those on the Midway, Buang

resorted to dropping notes.

The first two notes, unfortunately blew away before anyone aboard could grab them.

Buang tied the third to his gun and dropped it.

When the crew aboard retrieved it, they saw it read: “Can you move the helicopters to

the other side, I can land on your runway, I can fly 1 hour more, we have enough time

to move.

Please rescue me.

-Major Buang, Wife and 5 child.”

The captain of the vessel, one Lawrence Chambers then had a decision to make.

While it was possible to move some of the helicopters out of the way, there was no room

to move them all.

The young captain, only appointed to that post some five weeks before, decided that

there was little chance the family would all survive if they tried to ditch in the sea

next to the Midway and be rescued that way.

Said Lawrence of the event, “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.”

So, thinking hed likely be court-martialed for it, he made the call to move what helicopters

could be moved and dump the rest in the ocean after stripping them of any valuable gear

that could be removed quickly.

In total, some $10 million (about $65 million today) worth of helicopters were ditched in

this way.

There was another problem, however.

The plane in question typically needs a minimum of a little over 600 feet of runway to land

and come to a full stop.

The Midway itself in total was about 1,000 feet long, but the runway deck was only about

2/3 of that, meaning there was zero margin for error here.

Thus, in order to land such a craft on the deck with enough margin of safety, the ship

really needed to be moving as fast as possible to make the planes relative speed slow

enough that it could stop in time before falling off the end.

Using the cable system to stop the craft faster wasnt deemed a good option as in all likelihood

it would have just resulted in the landing gear ripping off and/or the plane flipping

over in a spectacular crash.

Unfortunately, Chambers had previously granted the ships engineers permission to take

the Midways engines partially offline for routine maintenance.

After all, helicopters did not need nor want that relative wind, especially when landing

on such a crowded deck.

Said Chambers, “When I told the chief engineer that I needed 25 knots, he informed me that

we didnt have enough steam.

I ordered him to shift the hotel load to the emergency diesels.”

With this, the ship was able to achieve the requested speed and Buangs landing was

also helped by another 15 knots of headwind, further reducing his needed stopping distance.

With that done and deck cleared as it could be, Buang was given the greenlight to land,

ultimately doing so with textbook precision and with plenty of deck to spare, becoming

a rare individual in relatively modern times to land such an aircraft aboard a military


And, thankfully for Captain Lawrence, he was not court-martialed for ditching rather valuable

military hardware to save Major Buang and his family, and instead enjoyed a continuance

of his successful career, eventually retiring as a Rear Admiral.

In the aftermath of Operation Frequent Wind, the U.S. ships continued to hang around for

a few days off the coast, trying to pick up as many refugees from the water as they could.

Finally, the order was given to head home, forcing the commanders to leave many thousands

of people that had been promised evacuation behind.

The Description of That Time Marines Dumped Millions of Dollars of Helicopters Into the Ocean to Save One Family